Ever Lopez of Asheboro, North Carolina, was set to become the first member of his immediate family to graduate from high school, but instead, he said, he was denied his diploma because he wore a Mexican flag over his gown at his graduation ceremony Thursday.
Until Lopez’s name was called, the graduation ceremony at Asheboro High School had played out like any other: A student’s name was called, the student received a diploma holder, handshakes were exchanged and people clapped.
But when Lopez approached the center of the stage with the red-white-and-green Mexican flag draped over his shoulders, he had a brief exchange with the school’s principal, Penny Crooks, drawing boos from the audience. After a moment, Lopez walked off the stage, raising a fist as he returned to his seat.
The moment was captured on video and posted to TikTok by Lopez’s cousin Adolfo Hurtado, who said Crooks had asked that Lopez to remove the flag and that he refused to do so.
Lopez, who was born in the United States to Mexican-immigrant parents, said in an interview Sunday that he wore the flag because he is proud of his Mexican roots.
“The flag means everything to me and my family because it’s what is in our blood,” he said. “It’s where we came from, and I’d do anything to represent.”
In a second video that Hurtado posted to TikTok, Crooks, flanked by four police officers, is seen escorting Lopez and his family out of the school after the ceremony. “He and his parents can come back tomorrow, and we can talk about it,” Crooks says in the video, which has been viewed more than 7 million times. “Go on.”
Hurtado said Lopez and his classmates received an empty diploma holder at the graduation ceremony with the expectation that they could pick up their diplomas afterward, before heading home. It was after the ceremony that Lopez was told he was being denied his diploma, Hurtado said.
The public school district in Asheboro, which is about 70 miles east of Raleigh, said in a statement Friday afternoon that Lopez had not received his diploma because he had violated the school’s dress code and because he had “detracted from the importance and the solemnity of the ceremony.”
“Graduation is a milestone event and it is grossly unfair for one individual to diminish this event by violating the dress code,” the district said. “This incident is not about the Mexican flag. Students were encouraged to express their identity by decorating their mortar boards. A number of students followed the protocol and had the Mexican flag and other representations appropriately displayed during the ceremony.”
In an earlier statement, issued Friday morning, the school district said it would “continue working to resolve this issue with the student and his family so that he will receive his diploma from Asheboro High School.”
“He has worked very hard and we commend him on this great achievement,” the district said. “We are confident in his abilities and we know he has a bright future ahead of him.”
Lopez’s mother, Margarita, said Crooks told her in an email Sunday that her son could pick up his diploma this week. But Lopez said she and her son also wanted an apology.
“To me, this was an act of racism, not just to my son, but to the entire Hispanic community,” she said.
A spokeswoman for the school declined to offer additional comment Sunday. Crooks did not immediately respond to a request for comment Sunday.
Hurtado’s videos of his cousin’s graduation have drawn millions of views on TikTok and generated support for Mr. Lopez.
“She’s claiming that it was a disruption,” Hurtado said of Crooks, adding that his cousin had walked by several teachers and school officials before taking the stage, and no one asked him to take off the flag. “Who did it disrupt? Nobody said anything, nobody did nothing. The only person who clearly was disturbed by it was her.”
Kimberly Antonia, whose daughter was a few spots in line behind Lopez, said she clapped for him as he approached the stage.
“I thought it was awesome seeing a young person so proud of their country,” Antonia said. “With that said, I truly think this situation should and could have been handled differently. However, in the moment it wasn’t, and nothing can change that.”This article originally appeared in The New York Times.