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$20 million lawsuit filed against Catholic high school over 'blackface photo'

The lawsuit says two boys were wearing acne face masks in a photo when they were falsely accused of posing in blackface.
/ Source: NBC News

Two California students and their parents are suing a private Catholic high school for $20 million, claiming that the boys were forced to withdraw after they were falsely accused of wearing blackface in a photo.

The lawsuit says that the students, identified as A.H. and H.H., were actually wearing acne face masks and they were pushed out of St. Francis High School in Mountain View without a proper investigation by school officials.

The incident took place in August 2017 prior to the boys starting school that fall at St. Francis. They were both 14 years old at the time.

On Aug. 17, 2017, A.H. and a friend identified as Minor III — who did not attend St. Francis — put white face masks on while at A.H.'s house. The lawsuit says that his mother bought the masks because A.H. suffered from acne.

"Believing themselves to look 'silly' in the masks, A.H. and Minor III took a time-stamped photograph of themselves in the masks," the lawsuit states.

Pupils from St. Francis High School in Mountain View, California.

The following day, A.H., H.H. and Minor III were at A.H.'s house and put on another, light green face mask.

"Again, they took a silly photograph in this mask, which had turned dark green by the time it dried on their faces," the suit states.

In the photo, which is included in the lawsuit, the three shirtless teens are seen posing together wearing what the suit claims are the green face masks.

According to the suit, the boys did not post the picture on social media but Minor III sent it to a friend, who later "tagged a music playlist on her Spotify account with a copy of the photograph." A.H. and H.H. were unaware that the photo was shared online, according to the lawsuit.

In June 2020 — in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement following the police shooting of George Floyd in Minneapolis — St. Francis became involved in a number of racist scandals, including one where a meme about Floyd's death was posted on Instagram.

Around that time, a student at the school obtained a copy of the boys' photo and shared it online. The suit claims that the student named those in the picture and insinuated that they were in blackface.

The image sparked outrage from other St. Francis students and parents and prompted the school's president, Jason Curtis, to publicly condemn it.

The lawsuit, however, claims the image "had absolutely nothing to do with these horrible acts of racism" and the school punished the boys "to further a political agenda." Without an investigation into the image or the involvement of the school's Review Board, the boys were told they had to withdraw or face immediate expulsion.

The boys left the school in June 2020.

"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 SFHS," the suit states.

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

St. Francis and Curtis did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

In a statement, a school spokesperson told The Mercury News that “Saint Francis High School is committed to creating an educational environment where all students feel safe, welcome, and included. Due to student privacy laws, we cannot comment on disciplinary actions or pending litigation involving students."

The lawsuit claims that the boys' lives have been upended and their reputation in the community was destroyed, forcing them to move out of town. The families are seeking at least $20,240,000 in damages.

A version of this story originally appeared on NBCNews.com.