California high schoolers awarded $1 million after 'blackface' claims linked to acne-mask photos

Two former California high school students were awarded $1 million and tuition reimbursement after they said they were forced to withdraw from the school in 2020 for wearing acne masks, which were 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 from with acne masks circulated in June 2020 during the Black Lives Matter movement, the suit says.

“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 emailed to USA TODAY. “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 totaled about $70,000, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Pictured is Holden Hughes and two unidentified boys wearing green acne facemasks when they were 14 years old in August 2017.

Pictured is Holden Hughes and two unidentified boys wearing green acne facemasks when they were 14 years old in August 2017.

Why did people interpret the acne facemasks as blackface?

The background behind 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-colored 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 color,” 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.

The boys were a ‘scapegoat,’ complaint says

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 sacrifice is worth it to clear out boys’ names’

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 to USA TODAY 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. “

After the photos went viral, the boys were “forced to move out of town for the foreseeable future,” according to the complaint. The situation also affected their ability to complete high school, participate in athletics and gain admittance to colleges, according to the complaint.

“We hope this will lead the Board of Directors to hold those responsible for these actions and make needed changes to protect students moving forward,” according to the Hughes family’s statement. “And to restore the sanctity of St. Francis as a Holy Cross high school.”

Pictured is Holden Hughes playing football at Saint Francis High School in Mountain View, California.

Pictured is Holden Hughes playing football at Saint Francis High School in Mountain View, California.

SFHS ‘exploring legal options, including appeal’

SFHS emailed a statement on Monday to USA TODAY 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,” the statement said. “The jury rightly found we did not breach our handbook, did not violate the students’ free speech rights, and did not defame the students.”

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.

“There is no legal precedent applying that claim to a high school,” SFHS statement said “We are grateful for the strong support of our community throughout this case. We look forward to putting this matter behind us so we can return to focusing solely on educating our vibrant student body and living the Catholic values of the Holy Cross tradition, which are rooted in hope, respect, integrity and family.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Saint Francis High ‘blackface’ suit gets former students $1 million

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