Native student settles discrimination suit against Arizona school district
Student was barred from her graduation ceremony because she added traditional regalia to her cap
Four years after being denied entry into her graduation ceremony because she wore an eagle plume on her graduation cap, Larissa Waln is finally getting a bit of justice as her family settled their lawsuit against the Dysart Unified School District.
“My family filed this lawsuit to protect Native peoples’ right to honor our religious beliefs and academic achievement, just as so many other students are permitted to,” Waln said in a statement. “I hope going forward schools learn to appreciate and respect our tribal practices.”
Waln, a tribal member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, and her father, Bryan Waln, a tribal member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, announced their agreement to settle their lawsuit against Dysart School District on April 18. Details about the settlement were not released.
Waln, who is now 21, was 17 when she graduated from Valley Vista High School in Surprise in 2019. The settlement comes three years after they filed their lawsuit in April 2020 in response to what happened.
In May 2019, Waln showed up to her high school graduation at State Farm Stadium in Glendale wearing her cap and gown, ready to receive her diploma.
But as she entered the stadium with her fellow students, school officials stopped her at the door, and she was not allowed to enter or participate in the graduation ceremony.
School officials denied Waln access because she included traditional regalia as part of her attire. She had a beaded graduation cap with a sacred medicine wheel and an eagle plume that her family had blessed for the occasion.
“It was an honor to be gifted the eagle plume for my graduation,” Waln said, noting that she will cherish it forever.
Waln’s father prepared for her graduation by having Waln’s paternal grandmother bless the eagle plume in a ceremony on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota.
Because wearing the delicate eagle plume under a covering or hat desecrates the sacred object, Bryan beaded his daughter’s mortar board to attach the plume.
When a school official saw the plume and beaded cap, the official prevented Waln from entering the stadium to participate in her graduation ceremony.
“Public schools should be lifting up our students and celebrating our Native cultural practices,” Bryan Waln said in a statement. “These items are given in times of great honor, and we can think of no better opportunity to give these to our children than when they earn their high school diploma.”
According to the lawsuit, the Dysart Unified School District claimed that allowing Waln to observe her religion this way would disrupt other students’ graduation ceremony experience. The district said that no students could participate in the commencement ceremony with “an adorned or altered commencement cap.”
But according to the lawsuit, another Dysart high school held its graduation ceremony at the same stadium on the same day, and one of those students was allowed to wear a breast cancer awareness sticker on their cap. The cap was permitted even after the school district’s declaration that no student would be permitted to participate with an adorned cap.
Bryan Waln said he remembers his daughter being turned away from her graduation. She was in tears, but he asked her what she wanted to do. If she wanted to move on, they would celebrate on their own, or if she wanted to stay and fight, they would. The teenager chose to fight, and their family protested the graduation ceremony and continued their fight in the court system.
The Walns sued, but a federal magistrate judge ruled in the school’s favor in March 2021, and the case was dismissed.
The family appealed, and their case was heard by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The three-judge appeals panel ruled in favor of Waln, indicating that the student plausibly alleged that school district officials did not uniformly apply their policy against adornments on graduation caps.
This was the first time a federal appellate court ruled on an Indigenous student’s right to wear religious and traditional regalia at graduation, according to the Native American Rights Fund (NARF).
“Dress codes cannot target and alienate Native students, nor require them to sacrifice practicing their spiritual beliefs to celebrate their academic achievements,” NARF Deputy Director Matthew Campbell said.
The First Amendment’s free exercise of religion and free speech clauses protect students from being discriminated against, NARF stated. Many states also have laws to protect Indigenous students’ right to wear traditional and culturally significant regalia at graduation.
“It is unfortunate that, in 2023, we are still having to deal with this issue,” Campbell said. “Modern school policies should celebrate Native traditions, comply with state and federal laws, and aim for inclusive ceremonies.”
NARF and law firm Rothstein Donatelli represented the family in the lawsuit, including its successful appeal.
“We commend the Walns for standing up for their rights and cultural practices,” Rothstein Donatelli partner April Erin Olson said in a statement. “While Larissa cannot go back in time to attend her graduation ceremony, she can take comfort in the knowledge that future students will be able to celebrate their religious beliefs and academic achievements.”
In an interview with the Arizona Mirror, Waln said she did feel like her right to freedom of expression and freedom of speech were violated because of what happened, and though the legal battle was long, it was worth it because her case has shed more light on this issue.
Waln said she hopes that other Indigenous students will see that it’s ok to be proud of their heritage and they’ll fight for their culture.
“I hope it shows them that it is OK to be proud of who you are and where you come from,” Waln said. “I hope they take more pride and know it’s OK to stand up if anything happens.”
Waln’s case has inspired change in Arizona. A law was passed in 2021 which allows a citizen of any federally recognized tribe to wear traditional regalia or objects of cultural significance during graduation in Arizona. A school district governing board could not say otherwise.
“They now understand how important it really is,” Waln said.
In terms of closure, Waln said she’s not sure because she still never got to experience her high school graduation, an event that happens once in a lifetime. She doesn’t plan on attending college. She works full-time at a clinic and intends to remain in the workforce.
Byran Waln said his daughter being denied to wear her traditional regalia should not have happened, and it is not something she ever had to experience.
“We are the original Natives of this country,” he said. “Yet, we’re still fighting for things like this.”
Byran Waln said the victory in federal court should inspire change, and he hopes other states will start introducing laws protecting Indigenous students.
Indigenous students being denied their right to wear their traditional regalia is part of the colonization process, Bryan Waln said, and he hopes that one day it will end.
He said they tried to get permission from the school district before all this happened. He said they presented their case to the school board, principal, and superintendent when they announced a week before graduation that there would be no alterations to the cap and gown.
He said they had already worked with his family in South Dakota to bless the eagle plume and beaded the cap. He said they wanted to resolve the matter with the district, but the response they continued to get was that students couldn’t wear anything political.
“It’s not political,” Byran Waln said. “We’re not trying to push anything on anybody else or trying to convince them to or be anything.”
The situation baffled him because he had two other children who could graduate in their traditional regalia without issues. They attend different schools in Arizona, which is why Byran Waln said he understood this wasn’t happening everywhere in the state.
“The fact that it still exists (is why) it needs to change,” he said, adding that they want to continue sharing their stories. So people understand that Indigenous students should be allowed to celebrate themselves and where they come from.
“It’s possible,” he added.
This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.