MOUNTAIN VIEW — Two former St. Francis High School students and their parents are suing the private school for just over $20 million, claiming administrators forced the kids out after they were alleged to have worn blackface in a widely circulated photo.

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The lawsuit claims the students were actually wearing acne face masks and school leaders unfairly lumped them in with groups of other St. Francis students or alumni who had taken part in “horrible acts of racism” that were being called out last year as racial and social justice movements swept the nation after the police killing of George Floyd.

“Without any meaningful investigation, or any involvement whatsoever by the school’s Review Board,” the lawsuit claims St. Francis President Jason Curtis confirmed to reporters for the Mountain View Voice last year that the photograph showed the boys wearing blackface. Curtis cited that as an example of racism at the school and said they would face “serious consequences” for their actions.

The lawsuit claims school leaders’ actions were a “virtue-signaling attempt to be perceived within the community as ‘fighting against racism,’ regardless of the true facts and context.”

School officials including Principal Katie Teekell coerced the boys’ parents to withdraw them from the school or face expulsion, in part because of the “optics” of the photo, the lawsuit says.

Neither Curtis nor Teekell responded to an email seeking comment for this story on Monday. Attorneys for the school also did not immediately respond to a request for comment, though a spokersperson sent an emailed statement on behalf of the school.

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“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 statement said. It also noted the school established in 2019 a “Social Justice, Equity, and Inclusion team to lead and coordinate the school’s efforts toward creating an anti-oppressive school climate and structure.”

The plaintiffs are being represented by Harmeet Dhillon’s San Francisco law firm. Dhillon is a former vice chair of the California Republican Party.

The school officials’ actions threw the boys’ “young lives and futures into complete disarray,” the lawsuit claims, forcing the families to move out of the area so the students could finish school and pursue athletics after being bombarded by “hateful messages” and “public condemnation” because of the photo.

The photo was taken in 2017 and shows three shirtless teenage boys wearing what the lawsuit claims are acne treatment masks, which were light green when applied and turned dark green after drying.

The lawsuit says the photo includes two former students who are part of the lawsuit, identified only as A.H. and H.H., both 14 at the time of the photo, and a third boy who was not a St. Francis student.

The parents of A.H. are identified as Bruce H. and Tanya H., and the parents of H.H. are identified as Francis H. and Wendy C., in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit claims A.H.’s mother “bought him a variety of acne facemasks” to help him cope with acne at the time of the photo. The day before applying the green mask, the boy put on a similar mask that was white, as did a friend in a show of support “and as a fun activity.”

On Aug. 18, 2017, A.H.’s mother brought out more acne face mask products, and the three boys put them on. On both days, photos were taken because the boys were “looking silly,” the lawsuit alleges.

“At no time did the boys engage in ‘blackface,’ nor did they intend to do so or mimic doing so,” the lawsuit states.

“Neither A.H. nor H.H. had even been aware of the term ‘blackface,’ let alone what it meant or signified,” the lawsuit said.

“A photograph of this innocent event was plucked from obscurity and grossly mischaracterized during the height of nationwide social unrest,” the families said in an emailed statement shared with this news organization through the Dhillon law firm.

“Our families sought to be a part of a solution to this obvious misunderstanding…and we were rebuffed by (St. Francis High School) and its leadership, who seemed to have no interest in entertaining the truth,” the statement said.

The lawsuit claims the photo the third boy took of the trio was shared with a friend, who then posted it as a photo on one of her Spotify music playlists.

Nearly three years later, on June 3, 2020, “a highly offensive and racist meme pertaining to the killing of George Floyd” was posted on an Instagram account named ‘Obamas_memes,’ which was created by recent graduates of the school, according to the lawsuit.

On the same day students and alumni called for those involved with the meme or the account where it was posted to be penalized, another student, identified as “Minor V,” uploaded a copy of the photo showing the three boys to a group chat, identifying all three of them by name, and claiming they were wearing blackface.

As the photo spread online, the lawsuit claims A.H. received threats of violence and “hateful emails” that evening. The next day, a dean at the school contacted the parents of the two St. Francis students, inquiring about the photo.

And by June 5, 2020, Teekell called the boys’ parents and told them the students “were not welcomed back,” though the parents pushed back, claiming the photos had nothing to do with blackface, the lawsuit said.

“Despite being on express notice of the falsity of the ‘blackface’ allegations,” the school officials “continued to defame and scapegoat” the boys “for the sole purpose of appeasing members of the…community who were (rightfully) enraged by wholly unrelated incidents of racism at (the school).”

The lawsuit also claims Teekell told the parents that if they withdrew their students voluntarily, the school would not mention any disciplinary action to other schools where the kids might end up, and would simply forward their transcripts onto the schools. After pushing for the school to reconsider its “knee-jerk” decision, the families withdrew their kids from the school on June 19.

However, the suit claims Teekell later reversed her position, and told the parents the school would “be honest” when filling out forms related to the students for transfers. Because of the school’s “interference” in his athletic career, H.H. was forced to move out of state to continue playing sports, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit claims a tuition reimbursement check sent to the families after they withdrew was dated June 6, 2020, which they viewed as more proof the school leadership was “intent on expelling A.H. and H.H” without fully investigating the situation.

The school tried to have the lawsuit dismissed, but Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Thang Barrett denied that attempt in a January ruling, saying there was “sufficient” evidence to show school leaders may have acted negligently, in part “due to lack of thorough investigation and reliance upon unreliable sources.”

Thang dismissed a defamation charge against the parent of a student who was also targeted in the lawsuit because she shared the photo of the boys on social media while organizing a march against racism, in which Curtis took part.

The lawsuit claims the boys have suffered anxiety and emotional distress from the incident, fear for their safety, and are in therapy as a result. The families have had to uproot their lives and some of the parents are splitting time between the Bay Area and their new homes to raise their kids.

The families are seeking at least $20,240,000 in damages, according to the lawsuit.