The parents of two former Saint Francis High School students have sued the Mountain View private Catholic school for $20 million, alleging their sons were falsely accused of wearing blackface in photographs when they were just wearing face masks to treat acne.
The lawsuit, filed in August 2020, accuses Saint Francis of upending the two teenagers' lives by mistakenly pointing to the photo while another controversy unfolded over students posting racist images to Instagram. It also names President Jason Curtis and Alicia Labana, a Saint Francis parent, as defendants.
"In defendants' hurried attempt to ensure their perception as social justice warriors in the face of an unfolding scandal, and without any efforts to ascertain the true state of affairs, defendants pointed to 3-year-old photograph of plaintiffs that was taken entirely out of context, to falsely accuse plaintiffs of having committed an overt act of racism ... and to scapegoat them for the misconduct of other students," the lawsuit states.
Attorneys for Saint Francis, Curtis and Labana denied the allegations, according to case documents. The attorneys did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In a statement provided to the Voice by a publicist, the school said: "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 identifies the two teenagers by their initials, A.H. and H.H.
When asked for comment, the boys said in a statement through their attorney: "This lawsuit is our attempt to redeem our names and reputations, and to correct the record to reflect the truth of what actually happened -- three and a half years ago, at the age of 14, we tried acne face masks to correct teenage acne before we started high school. A photograph of this innocent event was plucked from obscurity and grossly mischaracterized during the height of nationwide social unrest.
"In conjunction with the school and the community, our families sought to be a part of a solution to this obvious misunderstanding, so that the entire (Saint Francis) community could get to a better place, and we were rebuffed by SFHS and its leadership, who seemed to have no interest in entertaining the truth," they said.
In 2017, according to the lawsuit, a 14-year-old A.H. and a friend applied white-colored acne face masks and took a picture of themselves. The next day, joined by H.H., the friend posted another photo of the three teenagers wearing face masks which the lawsuit says were light green but turned dark green when they dried.
Three years later, protests erupted after current and former Saint Francis students were linked to an Instagram account that posted a racist image making fun of George Floyd, the man killed by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020. A.H. and H.H. had no affiliation with this Instagram account, according to the lawsuit.
But another Saint Francis student obtained the second photo of the boys, in which they claim they were wearing dark green face masks, and posted it to a group chat, naming the three boys and alleging they were engaging in blackface. The photo spread throughout the Saint Francis community and was posted to a Facebook page promoting a community protest, according to the lawsuit, including a reference to "kids participating in black face and thinking that this is all a joke."
Blackface has a long history of being used to mock Black people in dehumanizing ways.
Labana organized the protest, during which she publicly called for the boys' expulsion. The lawsuit also cites an interview the Mountain View Voice conducted with Curtis at the time, including his statement that the school had looked into an additional incident that involved the use of blackface.
Within a few hours, despite their parents' explanation of the "innocent" nature of the photo, Saint Francis informed both boys' parents that they were not welcomed back to the high school and could voluntarily withdraw to avoid expulsion, the lawsuit claims.
The high school failed to investigate the allegations against the students, the families said, and has mishandled other reports of racist conduct.
"It is SFHS'S pattern and practice to sweep incidents of student racism under the rug when doing so would benefit SFHS'S reputation, and to scapegoat students (regardless of their level of fault) when doing so would be better for the school or administration's public perception and ability to collect monetary contributions," the lawsuit states.
They're seeking damages for both emotional and financial impacts as well as reimbursement of $140,000 in combined tuition. The families said that Saint Francis would inform future schools they transferred to that the boys had left due to a "disciplinary situation," which allegedly disrupted H.H.'s ability to play football and lacrosse. H.H. has since moved out of the state so he can participate in sports, with his mother and father staying with him on a rotating basis, according to the lawsuit. A.H. and his parents moved three hours away and he is completing his high school education online, the lawsuit said.
Both families have incurred financial expenses to relocate and have suffered harassment in the wake of the case, the lawsuit alleges.
Attorneys for Labana filed an anti-SLAPP motion -- or strategic lawsuits against public participation involving speech on a matter of public concern -- to strike the complaint. Judge Thang Barrett granted her motion in January. The families are currently appealing that decision.