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Despite new law, some Nevada seniors fighting to wear personal regalia to graduation

The ACLU of Nevada has intervened in several cases, arguing the First Amendment and a 2023 law permit apparel of cultural or religious significance.
Rocio Hernandez
Rocio Hernandez
EducationK-12 Education

Though her late father won’t be able to watch her graduate on May 24, Eldorado High School senior Jocelynne Zepeda Franco plans to carry a memory of him across the graduation stage.  

Next to the maroon and gold tassel on her white cap is a charm with a photo of her dad, Mario, who died of cancer in 2022, when the Las Vegas student was in her junior year of high school. 

Draped over her shoulders is a stole with the Mexican flag on one end, to represent her father’s side of the family, and the Guatemalan flag on the other to represent her mother’s side. Multiple cords and medals hang around her neck, earned for Zepeda Franco’s high GPA, participation in UNR’s dual credit program, involvement in extracurricular activities and for her Hispanic heritage. 

“I knew I wanted a stole since the beginning of this year, because I wanted to represent my culture,” she said, dressed in a white gown with maroon and gold stripes — Eldorado’s school colors — on the sleeves. “It was really important to me that I could stand up there and be proud of who I am … and make my parents and grandparents proud of who they are and make my dad proud even though he couldn't be there with me that day.”

The charm was a gift from her mother, Katie Franco, intended as a surprise for the soon-to-be grad. 

But the surprise was spoiled by school administrators, who sent an email to the family last Monday stating students could only wear items issued by the school. 

Their attempts to appeal the decision were unsuccessful until the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada was alerted about the situation and stepped in. It’s not the first time the nonprofit pushed back against the district’s policy on graduation regalia, even after the passage of a 2023 state law, AB73, that states K-12 students are “entitled” to wear traditional tribal regalia or other items of religious or cultural significance for a graduation ceremony as long as it’s not likely to be disruptive. 

By last Wednesday, the school informed the family that their request for personalized regalia was approved. The next day, the school sent out an email informing Eldorado parents and students that the Clark County School District (CCSD) had revoked the district-level policy that led to the rejections. 

“Students are permitted to wear traditional tribal regalia or recognized objects of religious or cultural significance as an adornment to their cap and gown in accordance with AB73,” the district said in a statement released to media. “CCSD encourages all students and families to be mindful of the occasion and respectful of their fellow graduates so that everyone can enjoy the ceremony equally.”

The district did not respond to specific questions from The Nevada Independent on the issue or grant a request for an interview.

Zepeda Franco said she’s relieved that she and her friends, who all faced similar denials, will be able to represent their heritages during their graduation ceremony after all.

“I was just lucky enough that my mom knew a person,” Zepeda Franco said.

Jocelynne Zepeda Franco holds up a charm with a photo of her late father, Mario, outside of Eldorado High School on May 10, 2024. (Rocio Hernandez/The Nevada Independent)

A time for celebration

Even before the passage of AB73, the ACLU of Nevada has long argued that students have First Amendment rights to wear personalized graduation regalia.

“All AB73 did was codify First Amendment protections that are already in place,” Athar Haseebullah, the organization’s executive director, said in an interview. “They're permitted to do this because of the First Amendment, period.” 

But school district officials haven't shared the same viewpoint. In 2022, former Clark County School Board President Irene Cepeda said school staff need to know what students are bringing to the ceremonies for safety reasons. Prior to 2023, students in the Washoe County School District were allowed to wear eagle feathers in their hair or affix them on their graduation caps, but were told they couldn’t decorate their caps with tribal beads over concerns that students would abuse that privilege and write something inappropriate.

But that didn’t stop graduates from advocating for a change. 

In 2022, a group of Rancho High School students fought for and received approval from their principal to wear cords and stoles of cultural significance to their graduation from the Las Vegas high school. 

That same year, Haseebullah said the nonprofit advocated on behalf of a Liberty High School graduate with autism whose family wanted him to wear a stole that represented his journey to graduation, and everything he had to overcome to reach that milestone. He said school officials initially denied the student from being able to wear the stole, based on recommendations from the district, but later reversed that decision after the ACLU stepped in and argued it would be a violation of the First Amendment. 

“For many years, the way the district was justifying the opposition position here … is by saying that it interfered with the safe and respectful learning environment,” Haseebullah said. “Our argument has always been the same: ceremonies are a time for celebration, not a time for learning.”  

Last June, after years of lobbying from students, the Washoe County School District allowed all students to decorate their caps

Assemblyman Reuben D’Silva (D-North Las Vegas), who also teaches at Rancho, was one of the sponsors of AB73 last legislative session. He said students’ desires to express themselves at graduation was the impetus behind the bill. 

“Schools were kind of curtailing that ability, so we wanted to give them some teeth, a bit of legislation that would allow them more freedom to do that,” he said.  

Minutes of the bill’s hearings in the Legislature show it was not opposed by CCSD or other school districts. Though the bill became effective upon its passage late last May, D’Silva said it came too late for 2023 graduates, so this year was the first graduation season it would actually be implemented at CCSD and other school districts. 

But the ACLU of Nevada became aware of a graduation participation agreement earlier this year that stating students would need prior approval from the district in order to wear regalia that’s not issued by their school — even though AB73 doesn’t state such a process was necessary. 

Under the agreement, school administrators are expected to give students who want to wear non-school issued regalia an answer within five days. If students are denied, they can submit an appeal to a regional or assistant superintendent no later than 20 business days prior to the ceremony. If it's denied a second time, students have five business days to appeal it to the State Superintendent of Public Instruction for a final decision. 

The agreement adds an extra step to the appeal process spelled out in AB73, which states that denied students can appeal the decision to the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, who has five business days to respond before the appeal is deemed to be decided in favor of the student. 

The ACLU of Nevada first sent a district a letter in late March telling CCSD the policy was in violation of the First Amendment and AB73, demanding the district rescind the policy and inform all graduates and parents of the revocation of that policy. 

The district responded in April, and confirmed it rescinded the policy effective April 19. Hassebullah said he thought the matter was over until he heard about Franco’s case. 

Her mother said she sent administrators an emailed request for the graduation regalia on April 2, but didn’t get a response until May 6. By then, she was told it was too late to appeal. 

“I don't understand why this would be denied,” Franco said.

That quickly changed once the ACLU of Nevada became involved on Tuesday. 

Though the AB73 does allow the district’s school board from prohibiting items that are “likely to cause a substantial disruption of, or material interference” with a graduation ceremony, Haseebullah said that prohibition doesn't apply to the regalia that Franco wanted her daughter to wear. 

Last week, the nonprofit put up a form on its website for other graduates that are having similar issues. Haseebullah said as of Thursday, two more CCSD graduates have reached out. He’s hopeful their requests will be approved quickly too, but said if they aren’t, the organization is prepared to take legal action against CCSD. 

“We're just sick of the district's BS,” he said. “The rules are clear, the law is clear.” 

As for Zepeda Franco, she’s excited to be graduating in two weeks. She plans to attend Arizona State University to study biology, and hopes to become a pediatrician. 

“It was really hard, all the sweat and tears it took to earn all this, but it's really worth it and it feels like I'm finally reaping the rewards after working hard for so many years,” she said. 


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