SURPRISE, AZ — While hundreds of Valley Vista High School seniors walked across the stage for graduation today, one student wasn't even allowed inside the venue.
LaRissa Waln says she chose to stand by her Native American culture and religion today. She showed up but was stopped at the doors of State Farm Stadium by her schools vice-principal, who said she'd have to remove her decorated cap and exchange it for a blank one, or she wouldn't be allowed inside.
"I was sad for a moment," she said, "But that just means I get to be out here and stand up for what is right."
She and her family, some who flew all the way from South Dakota to watch Waln graduate, stood outside the stadium in protest.
"It's not just for her, we're fighting for all the ones that follow her," her father, Bryan Waln added. "There are other Native American kids out here that would love to practice their religion on graduation day."
Waln and her family have challenged the Dysart School District for weeks, asking why their policy bans any decorated caps from the ceremony. Waln and her family say not only have they yet to see a written policy, but they argue if other school districts allow decorated caps, and do so without any issues, Dysart should as well.
After little success changing the district's mind on their own, the Waln family reached out to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Their attorneys sent a letter to the district, citing Arizona religious freedom laws.
In part, the organization said:
"In accordance with her Native American faith, Ms. Waln - an enrolled member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe- seeks to wear beadwork and an eagle feather on her graduation cap. Under Arizona's Free Exercise of Religion Act (FERA), A.R.S 41-1493 et seq., the school may not deny Ms. Waln's request accommodation. She must be permitted to wear these religiously significant items on her graduation cap."
Click here to read the entire letter from the ACLU.
Dysart Unified School District officials responded, but disagreed with the ACLU's perspective.
Click here to read their full response.
Waln will still be receiving her diploma, according to her family.