From the blog

SCAPEGOAT: High Schoolers Awarded $1m Following Successful Appeal Of ‘Blackface’ Allegation

Two former California high school students have been awarded $1 million and tuition reimbursement after they claimed to have been forced to withdraw from the school in 2020 for wearing acne masks, which was mis interpreted by officials and community members as “blackface.”

The two former Saint Francis High School (SFHS) students, now 21 years of age, became the “posterchildren of racism” when a picture from 2017 of them with acne masks circulated in June 2020 during the Black Lives Matter movement.

“This case is significant not only for its groundbreaking effect on all private high schools in California, which are now legally required to provide fair procedure to students before punishing or expelling them.”

Krista Lee Baughman, the former student’s attorney, said in a statement “the jury rightly confirmed that St. Francis High School’s procedures were unfair to our clients and that the school is not above the law.”

The boys sued SFHS, the president of the SFHS and a parent of one of the students at SFHS for breach of contract, defamation and violating two other legal rights. A jury on May 6 awarded each former student $500,000 and tuition reimbursement, which totalled about $70,000.

The picture goes back to when one of the men, who at the time was 14 years old, had “adolescent acne,” according to the suit. Under the advice of his mother, in August 2017, he and a friend not named in the suit “applied white-coloured acne facemasks to their faces.”

Since the two boys thought they looked “silly,” they “took a time-stamped photograph of themselves in the masks,” the suit says. The next day, the boys got a 14-year-old friend, Holden Hughes, to put on face masks with them, but this time it was “light green in colour,” according to the complaint.

Hughes approved to have his name go public, but the other boy referred to in the suit as “A. H.” preferred to remain anonymous, according to Baughman.

After Hughes, A.H. and the other minor applied the green facemasks, they took “silly photographs” again, the complaint says. The misconception that the boys were wearing blackface was due to the acne facemasks turning “dark green by the time it dried on their faces,” according to the suit.

Accusations against the boys emerged in 2020 amid “a series of racially charged scandals perpetrated by a few SFHS students and/or recent alumni” that were “plaguing the SFHS community,” the suit says.

“(Hughes and A.H.) had absolutely nothing to do with these horrible acts of racism. And yet, (SFHS and other defendants named in the suit) took it upon themselves to use the innocent and wholly unrelated photograph of the boys to make the malicious and utterly false accusation that the boys had been engaging in ‘blackface,’ and to recklessly assert that the photograph was ‘another example’ of racism at SFHS,” according to the complaint.

Due to the backlash caused by the pictures, SFHS “compelled A.H. and (Hughes) to ‘voluntarily withdraw’ or face immediate expulsion,” ahead of what would have been the teens’ senior years at the school, the suit says. The complaint called the boys a “scapegoat” and referenced a meeting their parents had with SHFS’s principal which involved her verbally admitting that the school’s decision to “de facto expel A. H. and (Hughes)” was not about intent, but rather optics.

“SFHS openly admits that while it did not believe that the boys acted in a racist or discriminatory manner, the school’s priority is to pay lip service to how SFHS is perceived, even at the expense of its own students,” according to the suit.

The complaint says the accusation “upended” the boys’ lives and the lives of their families.

“We want to sincerely thank the jury and the court system for helping our boys and our families find justice, which now paves the way for their names to be cleared for things they never did,” the Hughes family said in a statement after the verdict. “… Twenty percent of our boys’ lives have been spent seeing this process come to fruition. But the sacrifice is worth it to clear our boys’ names, and to try and make sure that St. Francis can never again assume a child is guilty without giving a child the opportunity to show their innocence. “

The school said in a statement regarding the jury’s verdict.

“We appreciate the jury’s verdict rejecting the plaintiffs’ two primary claims of defamation and breach of contract and thank them for their thoughtful analysis.”

SFHS said it is “exploring legal options, including appeal” due to it “respectfully” disagreeing “with the jury’s conclusion as to the lesser claim regarding the fairness” when it comes to this disciplinary review process.