ASHEBORO, N.C. – When Ever Lopez decided to wear a Mexican flag to his high school graduation ceremony, he hoped to support his culture. Lopez didn’t anticipate anyone would react strongly against it, but because of the flag, Lopez was denied his diploma.
At the Asheboro High School graduation ceremony on Thursday night, Lopez said he carried the flag in and draped it over his shoulders while he was seated. Lopez said he was seated near teachers, and no one mentioned the flag until he reached the stage.
“I just gotta represent,” Lopez explains, “I did it for my family. They came over here to give me a better future.”
As the first to graduate in his immediate family, the ceremony held a special significance for Lopez.
When his name was called, he stepped up on stage, ready to receive his diploma. The principal wouldn’t hand it over, though, and spoke with him quietly as a line of students waited behind him. After a few seconds, he walked off the stage without his diploma.
“I myself was very upset, and I had to contain my emotions because we’re in a public area. We had a lot of people with eyes on us,” said Lopez’s cousin, Adolfo Hurtado.
Lopez said the administration told him he was being a distraction, but a statement from Asheboro City Schools says he was out of dress code.
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“The heart of the issue is the fact that the student did not follow the established dress code for the event and detracted from the importance and the solemnity of the ceremony,” according to a statement from Asheboro City Schools. “Our dress code is in place to ensure the dignity of the event is upheld and is fair to all students. Graduation is a milestone event and it is grossly unfair for one individual to diminish this event by violating the dress code.”
The school’s statement also said the denial of Lopez’s diploma wasn’t about the Mexican flag and that other students had flags on their graduation caps and weren’t punished. Photos and accounts from the ceremony show other students with stoles showing the Mexican flag, and those students received their diplomas.
An email Principal Penny Crooks sent to students prior to the ceremony explained the dress code, saying male students should wear a dress shirt and dress pants and female students should wear a dress, skirt or dress pants and that no flip flops or tennis shoes are allowed. The email also says clothing should meet the school district’s dress code policy. The email and school dress code make no mention of flags being prohibited attire and do not say students aren’t allowed to wear anything over their gowns.
After the ceremony, Lopez and his parents were called into Crooks’ office to speak about the situation.
Crooks said that he could receive his diploma if he apologized for the situation, Lopez said.
“I ain’t apologizing for nothing,” Lopez told The Courier-Tribune following the encounter. “It’s you who should be apologizing. You’re the one doing wrong.”
His mother, Margarita Lopez, cried: “For me that’s not fair. That’s something for racists.”
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Following their meeting, police officers escorted Lopez and his family out of the building. Robbie Brown, asst. police chief for the Asheboro Police Department, said the officers were already on-hand for the entire ceremony and that they didn’t dispatch any additional officers to the graduation ceremony. Officers escorted Lopez off the property at the request of the principal, Brown said.
As of 3 p.m. Friday, Lopez hadn’t received his diploma. His mother said she received a call from the school and that she was setting up a meeting next week to discuss the situation. The school offered to meet Friday afternoon, but Margarita Lopez said she preferred to wait so she could have others there with her so that she could have an adequate translator, as English isn’t her first language.
On Friday afternoon, a group of around 30 people gathered outside Asheboro High School in support of Lopez. Some in the group held signs saying “free Ever’s diploma” or “honk if you’re not racist” and others draped Mexican flags over their shoulders as Lopez did during his graduation. Every few minutes, cars honked along the road in support of their cause.
Jessica Estrada, a student at Asheboro High School, also attended the demonstration to support Lopez.
“I can’t imagine how his mother feels right now, considering the fact that he just wanted to show where he came from and show his pride. He worked hard to get something that means so much to so many immigrant parents. The fact that she refused to give it to him— it’s messed up,” Estrada said.
The incident has generated a firestorm on social media with comments over Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and Tiktok. Supporters of Lopez have started a petition called “Give this man his diploma” on Change.org with over 40,000 signatures as of Friday afternoon.
“Now I feel joy because I have everybody supporting me,” Lopez said.
Asheboro City Schools said following Thursday’s graduation, they’re reevaluating the dress code policy. A representative of Asheboro City Schools couldn’t be reached for comment Friday beyond the school district’s released statements.