UPDATE (5/15/15, 11:13 a.m. ET): Veronica will be allowed to graduate with her class, though she will have to take her piercings out. Her Twenty One Pilots hair, though, can stay. Her mom told us via Facebook message, "The Principal actually told us she could graduate with her piercings and hair intact last week, but my husband went into the school and had a talk with him and he stated per the regulations the hair was fine but she would have to take her piercings out for graduation. She won't be able to graduate with her piercings but they said her hair was fine as most of it would be under her cap and not noticeable. So she will have to remove her piercings for graduation."
Veronica Vela explains, with a laugh, that she’s a huge Twenty One Pilots fan. "Oh, I love them. That's why the red and blue—all for them."
The red and blue she's talking about is the hair on the top of her mohawk, sculpted into a perfect cascade of cotton-candy colors, a complement to her facial piercings and her open, expressive smile. The shaved sides and trimmed sideburns are her natural dark brown color, neat and well-maintained—not all that different, come to think of it, from the military haircuts required at the nearby Air Force base in the small Texas town of Universal City.
Veronica transferred to Universal City’s Judson High School earlier this year, after her family moved from the much larger city of El Paso. She's got a stellar academic record as well as a full-time job: She doubled up on extra coursework before she moved, earning all As and Bs and college credit—but she wanted to help her family, so she leaves school early each day to complete her shifts as a crew leader at Sonic.
So, why was she in tears yesterday, worried that she wouldn’t be able to graduate?
"I mean, he looked right at me," Veronica said, speaking about her principal, Jesus Hernandez III, describing a scene at a senior assembly two days ago. "He said, 'Let's say you have red and blue hair. Yeah, that's not allowed. You won't be able to look like that at graduation.' People were looking at me, starting to laugh and point me out."
Veronica didn't think it was either funny, or fair—and neither did her mother, who took to Facebook with this post in her daughter’s defense.
At press time, Judson High School has not returned our request for comment, but since the incident at the assembly, Veronica has been tweeting regularly using the hashtag #LETVAYGRADUATE2015, and happily retweeting the responses that have been flooding in from people across the country—supporters who believe that no one deserves to be shamed for their appearance.
We caught up with the busy senior, who was eager to share her story with us.
MTV: Hi, Veronica! Can you tell us about what happened at the assembly?
Veronica Vela: So, we got called down for a senior assembly in third period [Wednesday (April 29)]. All the seniors are in the auditorium. It's about 800 kids. Our principal is giving us a speech about graduation, going over what to do and what not to do. ... He called me out in front of the whole class. People turned around, they started laughing at me. It felt like some giant joke, but I didn't think it was funny. He went on to talk about piercings, which aren't allowed either. I tried to ask him a question about the whole piercing thing, because—I have nine facial piercings. Both my lips, my tongue, my smiley, my septum, my eyebrow! So, I had some questions about the policy.
He was answering everyone's questions around me—I had my hand up for about ten minutes, but he didn't call on me, he ignored me the entire time. After the assembly ended, I talked to one of my teachers, who thought the same thing that I did: that my principal was ignoring me on purpose, and he knew what he did was wrong.
We have another six of these assemblies before we graduate. So, if I'm to believe what he has said, if I step onto the stage with my hair as is, they could have me pulled off the stage, held my diploma.
MTV: Do you think you were singled out on purpose? Or are there other students at your school who might also be impacted by a "no piercings, no extreme hairstyles" rule?
Veronica Vela: There were other regulations talked about, things like 'no facial tattoos,’ but—I mean, nobody really has those [at my school]. I really think it’s just—I moved from a really big town to a really small conservative town, and you can tell there’s a difference. When I'm at work, I get a lot of really ugly looks. Some people don't want to look at me, don't want to touch me. It's so different here—people belittle me at school sometimes for the way that I look. In El Paso, it was considered cool. I mean, I looked cool! And people admired me for standing out. Not here.
MTV: Is there a dress code policy in place at the school that specifies any of these graduation requirements? Is any of this in writing?
Veronica Vela: There is a dress code policy here, but it doesn’t say anything about colored hair. I went over the policy really carefully with the administration at the beginning of the year because, you know, I'm a new student, but there's nothing in the policy about colored hair, and I was told it was fine. There is a section about "inappropriate facial piercings." We asked what that meant, and they said, "As long as there's not a chain connecting piercings." Like, if I had a chain connecting my eyebrow to my lip, that would be deemed inappropriate. But I was told that none of my piercings were deemed inappropriate, and I would be OK to wear them.
When all of this happened, I spoke to my dad about it first. I mean, my dad—he’s a military man, he kind of shrugged it off. He's not really all for my colored hair and piercings. So, he kind of said, "You might just have to comply." And I said, "No, it's not OK. How can they tell me after all these years of expressing myself, being myself, that suddenly it's not OK?"
MTV: What's really infuriating is that you get good grades, you're a good student. So, to threaten that you might not be able to attend graduation based only on your appearance, when you’ve worked so hard...
Veronica Vela: I was in the IB Program up until I moved. I couldn't continue it here. It stands for "International Bacchalaureate"—it's a college prep program, and I had all As and Bs. You're getting college credit all through high school, you're doubling-up on courses, taking really rigorous classes. All commended on my exams. I'm never late to school. Thirteen years, I've never been sent to the principal's office or been disciplined. It's not like I'm a troubled student! I just want to be able to express myself.
At my new school, I'm in a program where I'm a full-time worker outside of school. I go to classes until 11:20 a.m., and then I work 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. I'm a crew leader at Sonic. I doubled up on so many courses before I got here, and I wanted a job, wanted to be able to help around the house.
MTV: How have your new classmates responded to all of this?
Veronica Vela: My first period class the next day was tough. Everyone was talking about me, laughing at me. I went to the counselors, and I was crying to her. I told her what happened, and she told me how wrong it was—that it was public shaming and bullying. I wanted to talk to Mr. Hernandez about it, but he wasn’t in school that day—there was an emergency and he wasn't there. So, I still haven't talked to him about what happened.
But I've also heard from people on Twitter, other people who were at the assembly, who saw what happened and knew it was wrong, and asked my permission to share it on Facebook. And I'm like, "Yeah, please share it, what happened was so uncalled for, this needs to get out there." So, some people have been really great and supportive. Other people are saying that I'm just overdramatic, that I need to follow the rules.
But that's the thing! High school—they tell you this message: You can be who you are, you don't have to fit in, you can be yourself. But as soon as you do, they knock you down for it. So, in the most important moment of high school, they’re going to tell you that you can’t be yourself?
It just isn't right on any level. And if you're going to enforce these rules, it makes no sense to not have them the rest of the year and suddenly enforce them on graduation.
Fortunately, after Veronica and her mother spoke up, it seems Judson High School has reversed its harsh stance. Her mother has confirmed that after a meeting with the assistant superintendent, Veronica will be allowed to walk at graduation—piercings and hair intact.
Veronica's graduation is scheduled for June 3rd. We are eagerly awaiting her cap and gown selfie, proudly rocking the red-and-blue hair and the diploma.