On a Saturday in October, a freshman at Severna Park High School sent a photo of herself in face paint to her friends. Two days later, she was pulled out of class and suspended for wearing blackface.
Now her parents are suing the Anne Arundel County Board of Education in federal court for $4 million, saying the face paint was not black but gold and claiming the school system violated their daughter’s First Amendment rights and acted negligently toward her.
The lawsuit, filed Monday in Baltimore’s U.S. District Court, claims the high schooler was wrongly suspended for something she did outside of school, and that school officials’ decision to uphold her suspension ruined her reputation among her peers.
In the suit, her parents say the student, identified in court documents as K.H., originally bought the face paint and wore it to a pep rally and for school spirit day without issue, according to the complaint. Severna Park High School’s colors are blue and gold. The Baltimore Sun is not naming the student because she is a minor.
K.H. was “subjected to cyberbullying, in-person bullying and exclusion from her friend groups” after her suspension, according to the complaint.
Cole Sullivan, the parents’ lawyer, did not include the photo in the suit, but did submit a photo of the what he said was the face paint packaging to show it is gold.
Sullivan wrote in the complaint that because the photo was taken outside of school hours and didn’t directly reference Severna Park, school officials were wrong to suspend his client at all.
In June 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a Pennsylvania school wrongly suspended a student from her junior varsity cheerleading and softball teams when she posted a profanity-laden rant to her Snapchat to express her disappointment at not making varsity. In that case, Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., the court voted 8-1 that school systems have a limited ability to regulate student’s speech and expression off campus and outside of the school day.
“The facts of this instant matter are virtually identical to the facts in the Mahanoy Area School District case,” Sullivan wrote in the complaint.
Sullivan and officials for the school system declined to comment.
University of Baltimore constitutional law professor Mike Meyerson said the parents’ legal claim depends on whether school officials can prove the photo caused a substantial disruption in an educational setting.
“If you have white bigoted students filming themselves burning the cross and wearing swastikas, they damn well should be suspended because the school won’t be able to function,” he said. “But something like goldface, I think it would be very difficult to show a substantial disruption.”
According to the lawsuit, the K.H. was just “messing around” with her makeup when she sent the photo to her friends on Snapchat. But one of the friends took a screen shot of the photo and started circulating it among the student body.
When K.H. returned to school from the weekend, the principals had gotten wind of the photo and were looking to suspend her for what some students perceived as a racist act. K.H., through her parents’ lawsuit, says the face paint and the photo were never meant to offend.
The Morning Sun
“There was no racial biases or intent behind the taking of the photo, as it was the color gold, which is Severna Park High School’s school color,” the complaint reads.
One of K.H.’s friends even told school administrators it was just gold face paint, according to the lawsuit, but K.H. received an out-of-school suspension for displaying “intentional bias” and a note was placed in her student record, something her parents worry will hurt her ability to get into college.
Anne Arundel County Public Schools has a zero-tolerance policy for “bias behavior” and requires principals to investigate all complaints of racism or discrimination within two days of receiving them. The school system defines biased behavior as any conduct that creates a “hostile educational environment” and is based on an actual or perceived characteristic of a person or a group of persons, including race, color, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, national origin, ethnicity, marital status, disability or homelessness.
In 2019, the Anne Arundel School Board passed a policy requiring all ninth graders attend a diversity seminar to graduate from high school after a student at Broadneck High School used a racist slur in a Snapchat message to describe Annapolis High School’s mostly Black basketball team.
As to the claim for $4 million in damages, Meyerson said a sizable award for damages could deter schools from punishing students too much.
On the other hand, Meyerson said, there is a need for schools to act swiftly when students are discriminated against. Either way, $4 million is a substantial amount for a brief suspension from school.
“That’s a lot of windfall,” Meyerson said.