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Family of Severna Park High student suspended in alleged blackface incident sues school board in second, reduced lawsuit



The parents of a Severna Park High School student suspended in 2021 for taking a selfie in what administrators said was blackface have filed a second, reduced lawsuit against the Anne Arundel County Board of Education, six months after both parties agreed to dismiss an initial $4 million complaint.

Filed Jan. 25 in Baltimore’s U.S. District Court, the second suit is asking for $150,000 in damages, saying the face paint was gold, not black, and claiming the school system neglected the student and violated her First Amendment rights.

Referencing a 2021 Supreme Court decision concerning educators’ ability to monitor speech off school grounds, the lawsuit claims the then-freshman was wrongly suspended for something she did outside class. Her parents blamed the school’s decision to uphold the punishment for ruining their daughter’s reputation and making her an “outcast” among her peers, saying she has been “subjected to cyberbullying, in-person bullying and exclusion.”

Worried this incident will affect their daughter’s chances of getting into college, the parents are also asking the school system to expunge the incident from her record, print and publish an apology publicly for the students of Severna Park High School, and ensure no other schools their daughter might attend receive any information about the suspension.

In the suit, her parents say the student, who is not named, first bought the face paint for school events, like pep rallies and spirit days, and had worn it before without issue. Though the picture in question, which she sent to friends before it was circulated around the student body, is not included in the complaint, the complaint contains photos of the product packaging, as well as the student wearing the paint at a football game. Severna Park High School’s colors are blue and gold.

According to the lawsuit, two weekends before Halloween 2021 and just over a month after her first day of high school, the student was on a video call “messing around” with her makeup and trying to paint a skeleton on her face. After making a mistake, she decided to take a “silly selfie” and send it to a private group of friends on Snapchat, a social networking service. One of those friends, however, took a screenshot of the picture and started showing it to other people.

That next Monday, after a concerned classmate outside the original group showed the photo to administrators, the student was taken from her second-period class and suspended for two days. According to the complaint, the student and the friend she was calling at the time told school officials it was gold face paint and denied any racial bias or intent with the photo.

The Anne Arundel County Public Schools Student Handbook defines bias behavior as “intentional conduct” or communication “that creates a hostile educational environment,” and school policy requires principals to investigate all complaints of racism or discrimination within two days of receiving them.

In the suit, attorney Cole Sullivan argues the student “could not have exhibited” any racial bias or intent with her photograph because the face paint was gold. Additionally, Sullivan wrote that because the photo was taken outside school hours and didn’t reference the high school, administrators were wrong to suspend his client.

In June 2021, four months before the suspension at Severna Park High, the Supreme Court ruled a Pennsylvania school wrongly suspended a student from her junior varsity cheerleading and softball teams when she posted a curse-filled rant online after not making varsity. In that case, Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., the court voted 8-1 that school systems are limited in regulating student speech off campus and outside the school day.

Arguing the Supreme Court case was “well-integrated into American case law” at the time of his client’s suspension, Sullivan wrote, “the facts of this instant matter are virtually identical to the facts in the Mahanoy Area School District case.”

Sullivan did not respond to a request for comment and school officials declined to comment.

On Jan. 30, attorneys representing the school board filed a motion to dismiss the parents’ second lawsuit, arguing the educators “are entitled to immunity” and that the complaint “fails to state a claim entitling” the family to relief. The parents and their attorney have until March 6 to respond to the motion.

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