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Green Masks, Red Faces

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With a verdict defending the rights of minors against premature judgment, two teenagers from California, formerly ousted from an illustrious Catholic high school for alleged “blackface” activities that went viral on social media, emerged victorious in court this week, receiving a $1 million reward and reimbursement for tuition fees.

A jury from Santa Clara County backed the teenagers, known by their initials A.H. and H.H., about the issues of violated verbal agreements and denial of due process.

Three years ago, the youngsters sued Saint Francis High School after photographs of them wearing acne treatment masks sparked a widespread controversy. Accusations of “blackface” performance led to their coerced withdrawal from the esteemed institution in Mountain View. “It was quite clear the jury believed these were innocent face masks,” affirmed Krista Baughman, the boys’ attorney, speaking to the San Francisco Chronicle in the aftermath of Monday’s judgment.

Despite their landmark victory, the plaintiffs did not succeed on all fronts, losing out on three other allegations about contract breach, defamation, and impingement of free speech. When the lawsuit was initially filed at Santa Clara County Superior Court, the teenagers sought $20 million in damages, stemming from an incident three years prior when they and a friend – not involved in the legal case – posed for a selfie wearing acne treatment masks with a dark green hue.

This photo, innocuously depicting a skincare routine, was later repurposed as racist evidence against the students years later. A fellow student, who had procured a copy of the photograph from a friend’s Spotify account, uploaded the image to a group chat in June 2020, amidst the global upsurge in the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.

The photo surfaced coincidently with a meme posted by recent SFHS graduates commenting on the death of George Floyd, thereby creating its own share of backlash.

Building on assumptions of “blackface,” the student went on to distribute the photo across the school community, portraying it as an example of the school’s racist culture. The parents of the accused teens maintained that the green masks had been used with no malicious intent or racial bias; they claim their sons were unaware of the implications of “blackface” at the time.

As matters spiraled out of control, the school administration, instead of investigating, leaned towards the side of public sentiment. No assistance was offered by the SFHS administration in refuting these allegations or in containing the spread of the photograph. Instead, Principal Katie Teekell pressured H.H’s parents into having him “voluntarily” withdraw from the school, ostensibly to avoid public humiliation. Yet, regardless of her assurances, the school was compelled to reveal H.H.’s previous actions, leaving him prohibited from participating in athletics for a year according to regional rules.

The court has decreed that SFHS must cover the teenager’s relocation costs after he relocated with his family to Utah so he could continue playing football for his senior high school year.

SFHS and its leadership had refused the families’ multiple attempts to rectify the misunderstanding and flatly refused to entertain the truth, as alleged by the boys’ families. Ultimately, Judge Thang Barrett opted not to dismiss this significant lawsuit in January 2021, acknowledging the school administrators’ apparent lack of due process. The school maintains its dissent with the jury’s findings and is currently examining potential legal recourse, which may include an appeal.

“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 statement from the family of one of the boys, as supplied to Reclaim The Net. “Because that’s why we filed this lawsuit, and endured four years while it worked its way through the court system. Twenty percent of our boys’ lives have been spent seeing this process come to fruition. But the sacrifice is worth it to clear our boys’ names, and to try and make sure that St. Francis can never again assume a child is guilty without giving a child the opportunity to show their innocence. To never again sacrifice any child to protect the school’s reputation like they did our boys.”

This case creates new legal precedent by expanding the fair procedure rights established by the California Supreme Court in Boermeester v. Carry from private universities to private high schools, including religious ones. It ensures that students at these schools are given proper notice of charges and a fair chance to respond before disciplinary actions are enforced.

Following the court’s decision, this incident throws a spotlight on the broader societal conundrum of cancel culture and the perils of policy overreach. The tale of two California high schoolers mistakenly tagged as racists for wearing green acne masks is a stark illustration of how swiftly and harshly the online world can judge, often without all the facts.

The school’s rush to placate public outrage without diligent inquiry into the matter is a clear-cut example of policies stretched too thin, motivated more by the fear of public shaming than by justice. Such knee-jerk decisions not only skip due process but also trample on fairness.

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