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Two students receive $1M in blackface lawsuit against California Catholic school

Officials at St. Francis High School in Mountain View were hit with the jury verdict in May for forcing the two adolescents out without due process.

Three students from St. Francis High School in Mountain View are seen wearing what appeared to be blackface in 2017. The photo went viral in 2020 and led to a $1M judgment against the school after they were forced out. (Superior Court of California)

Two college students have been awarded half a million dollars each by a Santa Clara County jury after suing their former Catholic high school over false accusations of anti-Black racism.

A total of three male students at St. Francis High School in Mountain View, California, were seen in a viral social media post in 2020 wearing what appeared to be black face paint, sparking the school’s decision to force them out less than 24 hours later. The pictures dated to 2017 and the students claimed they were in fact wearing dark green acne masks. 

The families of two of them, Aaron Hartley and Holden Hughes, filed a $20M civil suit in 2021 against the school; its president, Jason Curtis; and Alicia Labana, a Black parent of a St. Francis student. 

A jury ruled on May 6, 2024, that St. Francis High violated a nondisclosure agreement and failed to provide fair procedure for Hartley and Hughes.

“The jury’s decision not only vindicated our clients but made groundbreaking new law, holding that ALL California high schools must give students fair procedure, and that private religious schools are not above the law,” said their attorney, Krista L. Baughman of Dhillon Law Group.

“It has been one of the biggest honors of my professional life to partner with my clients in this case, to achieve justice for them, and to help safeguard the rights of all California students.”

The controversy that led to the lawsuit began in 2020, during nationwide protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd. This included a demonstration at St. Francis, a majority-minority school operated by Holy Cross religious brothers. Members of the school community had taken issue with an Instagram account, operated by St. Francis students, mocking Floyd with the use of racial slurs and anti-Black stereotypes.

The same day that the account began circulating among St. Francis students and parents, the alleged “blackface” photo involving Hartley, Hughes, and an unnamed male student was shared online, after which it went viral. Labana, whose daughter attended the school and who participated in the protest on campus, reposted the image on social media. (A defamation suit filed against Labana was dismissed in 2022.)

An investigation by St. Francis officials led to the shutdown of the Instagram account, and a message sent to the school community by school president Curtis and principal Katie Teekell described the racist content as “in complete contradiction with our Holy Cross mission and values.” 

After the separate photo of Hughes and Hartley was discovered, their families were quickly informed by Curtis that the two students were “not welcome” any longer at the school, after which they withdrew.

The lawsuit they filed against the school centered around a 2023 California Supreme Court decision, Boermeester v. Carry, which established fair procedure rights for students at private universities in the state. This year’s jury decision in favor of Hughes and Holden, which included damages for emotional distress and tuition fees, extends the due process principles to private high schools.

Hartley went on to graduate from Los Altos High School in 2021. Hughes’ family eventually relocated to Utah, where he graduated from Lehi High. He is currently an incoming junior at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, where he plays football.

Hughes did not respond to a request for comment from BCM, but both families involved in the lawsuit released a statement supporting the jury’s decision.

“Twenty percent of our boys’ lives have been spent seeing this process come to fruition,” they said. “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.”

St. Francis officials have emphasized that the former students’ lawsuit was not entirely successful and say they may appeal the court’s decision on due process.

“The jury rightly found we did not breach our handbook, did not violate the students’ free speech rights, and did not defame the students,” they said in a statement. “However, we respectfully disagree with the jury’s conclusion as to the lesser claim regarding the fairness of our disciplinary review process and are exploring legal options.”

This reporting is supported by Ethnic Media Services’ Stop the Hate Initiative, with funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to The views expressed on this website do not necessarily reflect the official policies of the CSL, CAPIAA, or the California government.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.

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