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

Students walk between buildings at St. Francis High School Friday, March 3, 2017, in Mountain View, Calif. The red-hot IPO debut of vanishing-photo superstar Snap this week not only placed the Southern California startup at a $35 billion value. It also made Mountain View, Calif.'s Saint Francis high school $23 million richer. The Catholic school had invested $15,000 in Snap's early round of funding way back in 2012. By the time shares in Snap had finished trading Thursday afternoon, that pittance had turned into a big fat pile of shareholder value. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Saint Francis High School in Mountain View, Calif. A jury sided with two students who were expelled from the school in 2020 over photos of them wearing acne masks. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Two former students of a Mountain View high school were awarded $1 million and tuition reimbursement after they were expelled for wearing acne face masks, which were interpreted as "blackface," and sued.

A Santa Clara County jury sided with the former Saint Francis High School students who claimed the district was in breach of an oral contract and did not give them due process before expelling them in 2020 for photos that were three years old. The jury rejected the students' other claims, including breach of contract, defamation and violation of free speech, on Monday.

The students, referred to as A.H. and H.H. in the lawsuit, will get $500,000 each from the school and also be reimbursed for tuition, which is about $70,000 total.

“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,” said Krista Baughman, one of the attorneys for the students. “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.”

The outside of Saint Francis High School.
After photos of the students in the masks went viral, the school told them to withdraw or face expulsion. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Representatives for Saint Francis said in a statement that they "respectfully disagree with the jury's conclusion as to the lesser claim regarding the fairness of our disciplinary review process." The officials said they are "exploring legal options," including appealing the verdict.

One picture, which was taken in August 2017 during a sleepover, shows A.H. wearing a green face mask for acne, according to the lawsuit. The next day, H.H. and another boy took a similar photo of themselves wearing the face masks. Three years later during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests over the killing of George Floyd and racial injustice, the photos were shared and went viral.

Saint Francis told the boys they either had to withdraw from school or face expulsion. The boys weren't offered a hearing and the school didn't consider any evidence, according to the lawsuit.

The students and their parents originally sought $20 million in damages.

“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," said A.H.'s family in a statement.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.