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Student sues school district over denied request to wear a sash at graduation

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Colorado today, a judge is considering whether a Mexican American high school senior will be allowed to participate in her graduation ceremony tomorrow. The student wants to wear a sash during the ceremony with the Mexican and American flags. The school district says she can't. Aspen Public Radio's Halle Zander is covering this story.

And Halle, the lawsuit the judge is hearing today was filed just this week, but the controversy has been around for a while. Tell us about how it started.

HALLE ZANDER, BYLINE: Right. Well, the student is Naomi Pena Villasano, and she goes to school in the little town of Parachute in western Colorado. Back in March, she was applying to wear cords with her graduation gown that reflected her community service and school club honors. And she decided that she also wanted to wear a sash that represented her Mexican heritage. And she showed a secretary in the school's office an example of what it might look like. She said it looked like a traditional Mexican serape.

NAOMI PENA VILLASANO: I think it had, like, the Mexican flag, a few butterflies because I'm, like, obsessed with butterflies. So it was just, like, super, super cute. You know, I showed her. She's like, no, you can't. And I was like, well, why not? And she said, and I quote, "it opens too many doors. It's too much."

SHAPIRO: Opens too many doors - any idea what the secretary meant by that?

ZANDER: Yeah. Well, in an email she got back in April, the school superintendent told Villasano that if they allowed her to wear the sash, they would have to let other students wear other flags to graduation. And there are at least three recognized flags that the district says could be considered offensive, like the Confederate flag. So they've opted to only allow sashes or cords from nationally recognized organizations like 4H and ROTC.

SHAPIRO: And Villasano, I take it, didn't accept that.

ZANDER: No. She started petitions online and on paper to get support and says more than 6,000 people signed them so that she could wear the sash. The one she's planning to wear now has both the Mexican and American flags on it. She even met with Colorado's governor, who thinks all students should be allowed to wear sacred symbols of their faith and culture. But the school district wouldn't budge on its policy even after she had several meetings with administrators. So on Wednesday, she filed the lawsuit, and she's being represented by MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

SHAPIRO: Now the lawsuit claims that the school district has allowed other students to wear flags and cultural regalia as recently as last year. Why is this sash different?

ZANDER: Well, it's not. The lawsuit claims that in 2021 and 2022, Native American students were allowed to cross the stage wearing items of personal and cultural significance, including sashes, garlands and flags. And it says that one student even wore a sash honoring her Mexican heritage. Her attorneys are arguing that this is discriminatory treatment and that they're violating her First and 14th Amendment rights. So it's unclear why they've decided not to allow Villasano to do the same thing. The district hasn't been talking with reporters about it.

SHAPIRO: Has Villasano said whether she's going to try to wear the sash, whether or not she prevails in this lawsuit?

ZANDER: You know, so far, she's indicated that she is wearing the sash no matter what. That could change, though. She's a first-generation high school graduate and graduating with honors, so this ceremony means a lot to her. She says she doesn't want to have to choose between her right to free speech and receiving her diploma in front of her family.

SHAPIRO: And now you said this is playing out in this little town called Parachute. Is there a big Mexican American community there?

ZANDER: Yeah. I mean, about a third of the surrounding county is Hispanic or Latino, but it's western Colorado, which is pretty white and pretty conservative. Villasano has been getting a lot of support, but some people there are speaking out against what she wants to do. Like, some people are commenting on her petition saying that Americans graduating from schools in Mexico would never ask for this kind of treatment.

SHAPIRO: That's Aspen Public Radio's Halle Zander. Thanks a lot.

ZANDER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIZZO SONG, "SPECIAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Halle Zander