Grand Valley High School student barred from wearing Mexican flag sash at upcoming graduation ceremony
A Grand Valley High School senior could possibly be barred from walking during her graduation ceremony if she decides to wear a special sash.
Naomi Pena Villasano, 18, wants to wear a sash around her neck that represents both the Mexican and American flags. In Mexican culture, it is referred to as a “sarape.”
But according to Garfield 16 Superintendent Jennifer Baugh, allowing Villasano to wear the sash could open too many doors.
“To me, that just feels like an attack and targeted as a Mexican,” Villasano told the Post Independent on Wednesday. “I’m so saddened by this.”
Nothing in school policy explicitly restricts students from wearing sashes or stoles during their graduation ceremony. Baugh, however, told Villasano’s family via email that representing nationalities specifically on a sash could allow for any other students to wear a pin with a flag of their country’s nationality. The email was provided to the Post from Villasano.
Baugh claimed in the email that this could also lead to students deciding to wear a Confederate flag because “that student was from a Southern state.”
“To some people, the Confederate flag symbolizes much more than just the Confederacy at the time of the Civil War,” Baugh said in the email, adding that the typical practice is to prevent students from wearing other offensive flags. “If people get offended, we would not be able to tell that student he/she couldn’t wear that pin because we cannot discriminate against that student, regardless of whether or not we agree or disagree with them.”
She also said in the email that, typically, the only things GVHS students wear for graduation is the cap and gown, and any sashes or cords that represent membership to nationally-recognized organizations that operate in high schools across the country.
Villasano highly disapproved of the comparison between what she wants to wear and a Confederate flag.
“There’s lack of representation in my school, there’s lack of education, and that might be the issue,” she said. “But it’s still in no way, shape or form OK to compare flags of nationality — especially the Mexican flag because that’s who I am — to the Nazi flag and the Confederate flag.
“Especially since those are banned.”
The wearing of Nazi, Confederate or any other hateful flags or paraphernalia is not specifically addressed in the GVHS dress code. It does say, however, students cannot wear anything that is “obscene, profane, vulgar, lewd or legally libelous” or anything that “threatens the safety or welfare of any person.”
Being told she can’t wear the sash for graduation prompted Villasano to seek legal advice, as she reached out to multiple attorneys and the American Civil Liberties Union. Historically, Garfield County has a Latino population of around 30%. The percentage of Latino students in many area schools is often much higher.
Villasano also started a petition asking for signatures marking the public’s disapproval of Garfield 16’s unofficial graduation policy. As of Thursday, there were already more than 1,000 signatures on the petition.
Baugh told the Post Independent on Wednesday that students are still allowed to decorate the mortar boards of their graduation caps with whatever they chose, so long as it isn’t offensive. Villasano can also wear the sash after the graduation ceremony, she said.
Despite school policy saying students can’t wear anything offensive, Baugh claimed it would have no control over what students could wear if they allowed Villasano to wear her sash.
“It’s not our place to say what’s good speech or bad speech, or what’s acceptable in that arena,” she said.
Baugh initially said students are barred from walking for graduation only if they don’t have enough credits, and that the district actually never told Villisano she couldn’t walk for graduation. Yet, Baugh said if Villasano decides to wear a sash, she will be asked to “remove it.”
And what happens if Villasano doesn’t?
“We would hope that we don’t get to that point,” Baugh said.
She said another reason why the district only allows students to wear their caps however they please — and not sashes — is because everything about graduation is symbolic, from the clothing to the turning of the tassel.
“There’s a lot of tradition that’s steeped in just the act of graduating and crossing that milestone,” Baugh said.
She said no other students are asking if they can wear a sash during graduation. A common practice among students who chose to wear sarapes in the past, however, is to pull it out right when they’re receiving their diploma.
But for Villasano, following a loophole is essentially sidestepping a bigger, systemic issue.
“I have nephews that live in this town and that are graduating from here, and I want to help change the system,” she said. “I want to help enforce this policy of allowing people to wear their nation’s flag.”
Villasano is an ideal student, her high-school resume shows. She is on student council, Key Club, was captain of her volleyball team, also plays soccer and participates in the Upward Bound program.
After high school, she wants to gain her master’s degree in social work and open her own firm.
Months ago, she even took an internship with Youth Zone, Program Director Airen Goodman said.
“She is so inspiring to me,” she said of Villasano. “I’ve worked with her closely. She’s overcome so many traumas in her life.”
Goodman referred to Garfield 16’s decision to not let one of its students walk because they want to wear a sash with a Mexican flag on it as “mindblowing.”
“My hope is that this encourages other youth to be able to not be afraid to express themselves and culture and where they come from,” she said.
Samantha Freese, a local career coach, is another person supporting Villisano as she questions Garfield 16 practices.
Freese said Villasano is going to address this graduation issue at a Garfield 16 school board meeting in May, and that the entire community should come out in support.
Freese fears that if this situation was happening to students that maybe aren’t at the top of their class, the district “would have bullied them into backing down” or, potentially, “really taken away the opportunity to graduate.”
“She’s such a good kid,” she said of Villasano. “And that is why it is just even more infuriating to me is that this is even happening, and that they have the audacity to threaten us.”
Baugh said the only way for Villasano to be allowed to wear the sash is the district would have to work with its attorney to develop a policy that also indemnifies the district but also preserves everybody’s rights. She added that there’s only a board meeting once a month, meaning passing a new policy would at least take three months.
“The only regret on this thing is the timing,” Baugh said. “If it would have been earlier in the year, we could have done, like, ‘Hey, let’s explore this, let’s look at other school districts. How do they do this?'”
In spring 2022, she left her position as superintendent of schools in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, to take over for former G16 superintendent Brad Ray.
The next Garfield 16 School District Board of Directors meeting is slated for 5-7 p.m. on May 16. The meeting occurs at the Garfield County School District 16 Administration office at 460 Stone Quarry Road in Parachute.
Post Independent Assistant Editor and lead western Garfield County reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-423-5273.
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