A pair of teenage boys who were removed from a prestigious California Catholic school due to an alleged “blackface” photo are suing their former school for $20 million, claiming they were using acne treatment facial coverings.
The former students, identified as H.H. and A.H., allege St. Francis High School in Mountain View wrongfully punished them for an “innocent” selfie and claim their punishment was increased due to heightened racial tensions over the fallout of George Floyd’s death, according to court records reviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle. “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 teenagers’ families said in a statement to the outlet.
The suit, filed in August in Santa Clara County Superior Court, accuses St. Francis of mishandling the situation by telling the students they must either leave the school or be expelled. The families are seeking damages for defamation and a breach of contract, the attorneys representing the school disagreed that the photo was as innocent as the plaintiffs claim. “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 penned in a December court filing. Paul Gaspari, another lawyer for St. Francis, wrote in a letter on June 17 that the photo’s “disrespect was so severe as to warrant immediate dismissal.”
“Your clients, or their friends, are responsible for the posting of the photograph on social media and the resultant publicity and unfortunate consequences,” Gaspari said. In the suit, families of the two students said the photo was taken years ago, when the boys were 14 years old. When A.H. was suffering severe acne that prompted the use of this treatment, H.H. and another unnamed friend, Minor III, followed suit in solidarity. The photo would have remained private, but unbeknownst to A.H. and H.H., Minor III shared it with a female friend, Minor IV, who attached a copy of the photo to a music playlist on her Spotify account in October 2017, where it remained for two years, according to the filing. On June 3, 2020, during the height of increased racial tensions sparked by the death of Floyd, an Instagram meme account run by former St. Francis graduates induced backlash for an allegedly racist post and prompted calls from some students to oust others who followed the account.
Floyd, a black man, died in custody after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for over eight minutes toward the end of May 2020. His death led to nationwide protests highlighting the issue of police conduct in regard to the black community within the United States. Following fallout from the Instagram incident, a separate student, Minor V, found H.H. and A.H.’s face mask image on Spotify and circulated the photo to other St. Francis students on Snapchat, revealing the names of the two teenagers. The Catholic school has had issues with other reported incidents of racist claims, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. In 2017, the school’s baseball players were caught writing allegedly racist slurs on a locker-room whiteboard, and in 2019, a girl was reportedly racially bullied. Last year, a lacrosse player was suspended for taunting a Native American opponent as “Squanto.”
Both students have alleged they suffered severe repercussions due to the fallout. H.H, who is finishing his senior year in Utah, says he has suffered difficulty sleeping, confusion, and stress over his academic future. A.H. moved to a county three hours from St. Francis and is experiencing despair, anxiety, and fear for his safety.