Jury awards $1M to boys forced out of elite Bay Area school over ‘blackface’ they said was acne cream

A jury in Santa Clara County, California, has awarded $1 million and tuition reimbursement to two former students who sued an elite Catholic high school in Mountain View, saying administrators forced them out over an alleged blackface photo that actually showed teens masked in acne medication.

The jury sided with the plaintiffs on two claims against Saint Francis High School, for breach of oral contract and lack of due process, said Frank Hughes, the father of one of the students. However, Hughes said, he and the other plaintiffs lost on three other claims alleging breach of contract, defamation and a violation of free speech.

“Our primary goal was to clear (our clients)’ names,” the plaintiffs’ attorney, Krista Baughman, said in an interview after the jury award, which was handed down Monday. “It was quite clear the jury believed these were innocent face masks. They are young kids, their Internet trail is going to haunt them for the next 60 years. Now they don’t have to worry about that.”

An exterior view of St. Francis High School Friday, March 3, 2017, in Mountain View, California. Photo credit: Marcio Jose Sanchez, The Associated Press
An exterior view of St. Francis High School Friday, March 3, 2017, in Mountain View, California. Photo credit: Marcio Jose Sanchez, The Associated Press

School officials emphasized in a statement that the jury had rejected the plaintiffs’ two primary legal claims of defamation and breach of contract, and found that the administration did not interfere with the students’ free speech rights.

Representatives of Saint Francis said they “respectfully disagree with the jury’s conclusion as to the lesser claim regarding the fairness of our disciplinary review process,” the statement read, adding that the school is “exploring legal options” including an appeal.

The former students and their parents initially sought $20 million when they sued Saint Francis in 2020, after a photo surfaced of the two boys and another friend wearing what they said were acne treatment masks. 

In August 2017, a boy identified as A.H. in the lawsuit donned a green mask that his mother had purchased, intended to cure severe acne. He snapped a bathroom selfie with another boy in a white acne mask. The following day A.H., a friend referred to as H.H., and a third boy, Minor III, rubbed green medication on their faces in solidarity and took a picture of themselves, according to the lawsuit. Court exhibits show a photo of three shirtless boys, one flashing rock ‘n roll horns.

Although the students said they had taken the photos not out of racial animus but as a joke, it went viral amid a national reckoning over race and inequality. Some who viewed the photo believed it was clearly intended as a depiction of blackface. One parent shared the photo ahead of a planned march to protest “outrageous behavior” online and pressure the school to take action.

As criticism mounted, school administrators gave the boys a choice: withdraw voluntarily or be expelled. 

“Tragically, defendants achieved their goal of portraying (the) plaintiffs as posterchildren of racism at (Saint Francis High School), resulting in the devastating destruction of the boys’ young lives,” attorneys for the Dhillon Law Group wrote in their court complaint, in which they accused the school of “virtue signaling” and rushing to punish the teens without a fair investigation.

When the teens left Saint Francis and sought to enroll in other high schools, Hughes said, the principal at Saint Francis promised not to disclose the reason for their transfer. This pledge created a problem: Hughes’ son played football and wanted to join the team at his new school, which required Saint Francis to disclose that he had switched schools to avoid a disciplinary action. With that disclosure, the boy would be automatically banned from playing sports for a year, under a regional regulation for high school athletic programs.

The principal’s breach of a verbal agreement underpinned the plaintiffs’ oral contract claim in the lawsuit. Hughes wound up moving his family to Utah so his son would be eligible to play football during his senior year. Following Monday’s verdict, Saint Francis must reimburse him for moving and living expenses.

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