Restraining order denied, but Naomi Peña Villasano still walks

Naomi Pena Villasano graduates Grand Valley High School on Saturday.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

After being told by her school district she couldn’t wear a Mexican-U.S. graduation sash, after pleading with school board members to reconsider, after a U.S. District Court judge denied her motion in court.

Grand Valley High School senior Naomi Peña Villasano was allowed to walk across the stage at her high school graduation ceremony Saturday. 

“Always stand up for what you believe in,” she said right after receiving her diploma. “Just like my senior quote.”

In late April, Peña Villasano was warned by Superintendent Jennifer Baugh and Garfield 16 administration she’d be barred from Grand Valley’s graduation ceremony if she decided to wear the stole — adorned in Stars and Stripes on one end, the other, an eagle, a cactus and serpent symbolizing the flag of Mexico.

That stole was slightly covered around Peña Villasano’s neck by a thicker yellow sash Saturday. No administrators or teachers tried stopping her as she nabbed her diploma.

“I’m super excited,” she said. “I’m shocked but I am so proud of myself and all the achievements I’ve had.”

Naomi Pena Villasano graduates Grand Valley High School on Saturday.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

The past few weeks leading up to Grand Valley’s graduation ceremony were rife with controversy. In an email explaining why the district didn’t want Peña Villasano wearing the stole, Baugh said it could spur other students to wear whatever they wanted — such as a Confederate flag.

The comparison prompted Peña Villasano and others, like regional Latino advocacy group Voces Unidas, to visit the capitol in Denver and speak with legislators and Gov. Jared Polis on this matter.

They also made several public comments at a May 16 school board meeting, arguing the board should vote on creating a new policy allowing for national regalia to be worn at graduation. 

“This district believes there is not adequate time to properly consider changes to its rules and traditions prior to graduation so the current rules and traditions will be in effect and fully enforced,” Board president Lynn Shore said in a Friday news release. “Because the issues raised have merit and it is past time to review the rules and traditions these will be reviewed during the 2023/24 school year. 

Shore said those impacted including students, parents, staff, administration and the community will be invited to participate. 

“This will be done with the intent of assuring the 2024 graduation ceremony proceeds without controversy,” he said. 

Earlier this week, Peña Villasano filed a lawsuit against Garfield 16, alleging it violated her Freedom of Speech rights under the First and 14th amendments. 

On Friday — the day before her graduation — U.S. District Court Judge Nina Y. Wang denied the request.

“We are disappointed that the court was unwilling to use a temporary restraining order on the eve of her graduation to prevent the school district from actually violating her First Amendment rights,” Voces Unidas President and CEO Alex Sanchez told the Post Independent on Friday. “Again, the inconsistency in school rules around regalia is why Voces Unidas will push for more clarity in state law. We hope the school district does the right thing and not block a student from graduating simply because they are celebrating their culture.”

Senior Naomi Pena Villasano just before Grand Valley High School ‘s graduation ceremony Saturday.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

The district stated in the release that when Peña Villasano was told she was not allowed to wear her sash to her graduation ceremony, but could decorate her cap. Grand Valley High School’s policy on graduation cap decorations can be found here

“Garfield 16’s decision to not allow a sash during the graduation ceremony was to protect the symbolic traditions that signify the graduates’ academic accomplishments and services to the community,” the release states. “Each stole, cord, or pin worn over the graduate’s gown symbolizes academic honors, school-sponsored activities, and military enlistment. It was our intention to protect these symbols as graduation is a time to celebrate student achievement.”

The district also stated in the release that when Peña Villasano presented her desire to wear her sash to graduation, district administration met with her in an effort to work toward a solution. 

“After several meetings with Superintendent Dr. Jennifer Baugh, Grand Valley High School Principal Kelly McCormick, Ms. Pena Villasano and her family, and other supporting District staff, a plan was set in place,” the release states. “Ms. Pena Villasano was encouraged to address her concerns using democratic processes involving the senior class and the District Board of Education. Ms. Pena Villasano failed to accomplish these tasks.”

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