Last October, an Anne Arundel County high school suspended a student accused of wearing blackface. Now, her parents have filed a lawsuit in federal court against the school board, saying it was actually gold face paint and the board acted “with recklessness, malice and/or deceit.”
The student at the center of the lawsuit is identified only as K.H. because she is a minor. The suit was filed in Maryland District Court.
“K.H.’s face was gold, not the color of any underprivileged or discriminated race of people that exist in this world. K.H. was irrationally and negligently suspended from school for displaying ‘intentional’ bias,” the suit stated.
According to the lawsuit, K.H. was at home on Oct. 16, 2021, a Saturday, when she sent a Snapchat message to a group of friends with her face covered in gold face paint while she held up a “rock out” sign without a caption.
The following Monday, the picture was brought to the attention of school administrators by other students who claimed it was K.H. in blackface or brownface, according to the lawsuit.
Staff members pulled K.H. out of class to question her about the photo. She told them it was gold face paint and said there was no racial bias behind the photo, according to the lawsuit. She had worn the paint before without incident at school pep rallies and spirit days because gold is a school color, she said.
The lawsuit also claims a student who was FaceTiming with her at the time the paint was applied confirmed it was gold paint and the students were “just messing around with their makeup,” according to the lawsuit.
School administrators said the photo violated the student handbook, and the student was suspended for intentional bias, according to the lawsuit. Upon her return to school, she was also required to participate in a “bias behavior program.”
The complaint said the student’s father made repeated attempts to appeal the suspension with the school board, but it “held firm to its decision to suspend” and added a note about the suspension to her permanent file.
After she was suspended, the lawsuit claims, the student was unfairly bullied by other students and labeled a racist.
The suit also points out the photo in question was taken on a Saturday, when she was not at school, and cites a recent U.S. Supreme Court case in which the justices ruled in an 8-1 decision that punishing students for off-campus speech violates the First Amendment.
Lawyers for the student said the photo of K.H. was off-campus, not during school hours and did not target another student or staff member; and therefore the punishment violated her freedom of speech.
The lawsuit seeks punitive damages of $4 million, as well as an additional $400,000 in compensatory damages for “impairment of reputation, personal humiliation” among other reasons.
WTOP has reached out to the Anne Arundel Board of Education for comment.