·  Legal News, Analysis, & Commentary

Verdicts & Settlements

California Students Expelled for “Blackface” Receive $1m Settlement

— May 9, 2024

The two students were expelled after a 2017 photograph of them wearing acne masks surfaced amidst the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020.

Two California students will receive $1 million after being expelled for wearing acne masks that educators had misinterpreted as a type of “blackface.”

According to The Los Angeles Times, a Santa Clara jury awarded damages and tuition reimbursement to the former Saint Francis High School students, who claimed that their district breached an oral contract by expelling them without due process or any real attempt at fact-finding. The school’s decision was largely based on a set of years-old photographs that depicted the two Mountain View teenagers wearing black-colored acne masks.

The jury, notes the Times, rejected the students’ other claims, which included breach of contract, defamation, and violations of their rights to engage in protected speech.

The award will provide each student with about $500,000, as well as tuition reimbursement totaling $70,000.

“Our primary goal was to clear [our clients’] names,” said attorney Krista Baughman, an attorney representing one of the two students. “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.”

The San Francisco Chronicle writes that the complaint centers on a series of photographs taken by both plaintiffs, who are referred to in court documents only by the acronyms “A.H.” and “H.H.”

A gavel. Image via Wikimedia Commons via Flickr/user: Brian Turner. (CCA-BY-2.0).

In one of the photographs, taken in August 2017, A.H. took a photograph of himself wearing a green face mask and standing alongside another teenager who was wearing a white face mask. The next day, A.H.—along with H.H. and a third boy, “Minor III”—rubbed “green medication” on their faces and took another picture, which they shared online.

Although the pictures do not appear to have caused any controversy at the time they were uploaded, the photographs attracted attention after “Black Lives Matter” protests began to spread nationwide in 2020. A parent who viewed the picture, for instance, interpreted the face masks as “blackface” and attempted to organize a march against the students’ supposedly “outrageous behavior.”

School administrators eventually gave the two boys a choice: withdraw from Saint Francis, or face expulsion.

“Defendants 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 [Saint Francis High School],” the lawsuit said.

“The boys did not use the facemasks or take the photograph with any ill-intent, bias or prejudice, let alone in connection with any racist sentiments or epithets,” it adds.

Baughman, an attorney for one of the students, suggested that the “groundbreaking” ruling will improve disciplinary procedures at private schools across the state.

“This case is significant not only for our clients but 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,” Baughman said. “The jury rightly confirmed that Saint Francis High School’s procedures were unfair to our clients and that the school is not above the law.”

Saint Francis High School officials have since said that they “respectfully disagree with the jury’s conclusion as to the lesser claim regarding the fairness of our disciplinary review process,” and that they are “exploring legal options” for appeal.


Expelled California high school students awarded $1 million in lawsuit after accusation they used ‘blackface’

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

Two expelled Bay Area high school students awarded $1 million in ‘blackface’ lawsuit

Join the conversation!