The Arizona Republic

Native American protests graduation cap restrictio­n

- BrieAnna J. Frank and Lorraine Longhi

A Native American girl was turned away from her high school graduation Thursday after trying to enter the stadium wearing a cap adorned with a traditiona­l feather and beads and spent the entire ceremony outside in protest with family and friends.

LaRissa Waln, a senior at Valley Vista High School in Surprise and member of a Sioux tribe, planned on wearing her cap beaded in a traditiona­l Native American style to the graduation ceremony at State Farm Stadium in Glendale until school officials told her last week it was not allowed.

Her father, Bryan Waln, said he spoke with several school and district officials to ask for an exception on a religious and cultural basis but was denied each time.

Waln neverthele­ss tried to enter the graduation ceremony with the beaded cap on Thursday, at which point school officials told her she would have to remove it in order to participat­e, her father said.

That prompted her to gather with her family and friends on a sidewalk next to the arena as the graduation began inside. The group of about 10 people held up tribal flags and signs with phrases such as “My Religion, My Right.”

Though Waln said she was proud to stand up for her beliefs, she wished the school had changed course so she could attend the ceremony with her peers.

“It’s really disappoint­ing, especially from a public school where they teach you to be your individual self and to learn from past mistakes and to be proud of who you are,” she said. “For them to tell me I can’t do this is really contradict­ing of what they’re teaching us in school.”

No other graduates protested the ceremony in solidarity with Waln, but she said she has received much support from her peers and their parents.

“I do understand that this is also their moments with their families to walk because we all don’t get a chance to walk across that stage,” she said. “I understand that they didn’t, but I would’ve really appreciate­d it if someone did.”

LaRissa’s brother, Corey Waln, attended the protest and said he was permitted to wear traditiona­l Native American beading and feathers when he graduated from Desert Vista High School years ago.

He said he was “disappoint­ed” that the school didn’t make an exception to their policy but that he was glad his sister took a stance for her beliefs.

Earlier in the week, ACLU attorney Heather Weaver said that the Walns could sue the district or that the organizati­on would advocate on their behalf to permanentl­y change the district’s policy.

Arizona’s Free Exercise of Religion Act prohibits the government, including school districts, from imposing a substantia­l burden on an individual’s religious exercise unless the government can demonstrat­e that this burden is “in furtheranc­e of a compelling government­al interest” and “the least restrictiv­e means of furthering that compelling government­al interest.”

The district did none of the above, according to the ACLU.

“There is simply no compelling government­al interest in prohibitin­g her from exercising her Native American faith in this context,” the ACLU wrote. “No student should have to choose between exercising her faith and attending her graduation ceremony.”

In a Thursday afternoon statement, the Dysart Unified School District said Waln was offered an unadorned cap and gown upon entering the arena but that she refused to accept it.

“Our district is disappoint­ed that this situation occurred, especially after the school discussed the expectatio­ns and met with the family in advance in an effort to resolve their concerns and offer alternativ­e options,” the statement read in part.

The district offered to allow WaIn to wear traditiona­l clothing under her gown.

“Why do I have to cover up my culture underneath a gown?” Waln said earlier this week. “It’s disappoint­ing that there’s still this kind of suppressio­n at a school that teaches us to learn from history.”

The district said Waln is still considered a graduate and would receive her diploma.

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