$20 million suit says Bay Area school forced boys out for ‘blackface’ that was actually acne medication

Posted 42 days ago


A pair of teenage boys and their parents are seeking $20 million in a lawsuit against an exclusive Catholic high school in Mountain View, saying school officials forced the boys out last year over an alleged blackface photo that they say actually showed acne medication.

The selfie photo, showing the two former St. Francis students and a third boy with their faces covered in painted masks of dark green, went viral amid last year’s racial reckoning, prompting outrage from administrators and some other parents. The boys’ families said the school offered a choice: leave or be expelled.

If the boys left on their own, the suit states, administrators would not tell prospective transfer schools what had happened. But the parents insisted it was all a big mistake. Their boys, they said, had taken the photo three years earlier at the age of 14, not out of racial animus but as a joke.

As described in a lawsuit being fought in Santa Clara County Superior Court, one of the boys had acne and spread a light green mask on his face before two friends followed in solidarity. When the masks dried, the lawsuit states, the color darkened and the three took a selfie — a decision that would ultimately upend their lives when the photo spread and pitched the affluent Peninsula campus into turmoil.

While two of the boys’ families say St. Francis mishandled the situation, and are seeking damages for defamation and breach of contract, the school says it had “sole discretion” to punish the two students and that the families left voluntarily in June. In court filings, the school’s attorney says administrators disagreed with the families’ explanation that the photo was innocent.

“The School perceived that the photograph was blackface and was harmful and damaging to the School community and that the School needed to take disciplinary action against Plaintiffs,” attorney Nicholas Ma wrote in a December court filing.

The suit, filed in August, comes at a time of tension across society as the nation confronts how systemic, often unchecked racism has bred inequality and turned settings like schools and workplaces into oppressive atmospheres.

While the boys’ intent is at issue in the St. Francis case, many schools have wrestled with how harshly to address behavior by young people that harms people of color. And schools themselves have often faced criticism for breeding or tolerating bigotry over the years.

Last week in Sacramento, leaders of another Catholic high school — also called St. Francis — said they disciplined a sophomore girl for using blackface to bully a fellow student. The girl used Snapchat’s paint feature to mimic blackface in a photo that spread virally, the Sacramento Bee reported, prompting a group of Black parents to seek the girl’s expulsion and highlight what they said was a history of racism at the school.

A school spokesperson told The Chronicle the girl was “no longer enrolled,” though it was unclear whether she was expelled.

“Any time we are talking about race and racism, it’s challenging for our institutions,” Harry Lawson, director of the National Education Association’s Human and Civil Rights Department, said in an interview. “It does get difficult. Particularly, when you’re working for transformative change.”

Blackface persists despite its use for more than 200 years to stereotype and discriminate against Black people. Politicians, entertainers and others continue to be caught wearing it, prompting apologies. Lawson noted that blackface images have been some of the most incendiary in discussions about racism because they are “a caricature of a group of people meant to dehumanize them.”

The boys, identified by their initials H. H. and A.H. in court records, joined their parents in suing the Mountain View school and its president, Jason Curtis, alleging that they came to a conclusion about the photo for the wrong reasons and without adequate investigation.

According to the suit, the principal told the families that the decision to remove two of the boys — the third attended a different school and is not involved with the lawsuit — was based on “optics.” The episode came weeks after the police killing of George Floyd ignited nationwide protests. The boys allege they were threatened, lost friends and had to move out of the community, with one going out of state to continue playing sports.

The suit accuses the school of inconsistently addressing accusations of racism by students, keeping them quiet at times or choosing to “scapegoat students” if it “would be better for the school or administration’s public perception and ability to collect monetary contributions.”

“This lawsuit is our attempt to redeem our names and reputations, and to correct the record to reflect the truth of what actually happened,” the boys and their families said in a statement their attorney released to The Chronicle. “A photograph of this innocent event was plucked from obscurity and grossly mischaracterized during the height of nationwide social unrest.”

In January, a judge denied a motion to dismiss the suit, saying there was sufficient evidence “that Defendants may have acted negligently.” Judge Thang Barrett ruled that even though the school president didn’t name the boys in public statements, they were identifiable, and there was no evidence of an investigation by administrators.

The judge dismissed the plaintiffs’ defamation charge against a St. Francis student’s mother who shared the alleged blackface photo while organizing a march at the school, saying she had broad free-speech immunity. The mom has said she was not aware of the acne mask story. That decision is under appeal.

The lawsuit states that in August 2017, the boy referred to as A. H., then 14 and suffering from severe adolescent acne, applied the green mask, bought by his mother. He had taken a photo of himself and another boy in a white acne mask the day before. His friend, H.H., and another unnamed friend, referred to as Minor III, also applied the green medication as a show of support and because they thought it looked “silly,” according to the suit.

They snapped the photo showing th... (Read more)