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California coaches, teacher suspended for donning blackface at costume party

By Laila Kearney

(Reuters) - Two California high school football coaches and a teacher were suspended this week for wearing Halloween costumes that featured blackface, prompting criticism from parents and a leading civil rights organization after pictures of the event were posted on Facebook.

The three San Diego educators, all white, wore dark-face makeup and stretch jumpsuits to portray Jamaican bobsledders at a weekend costume party at the home of one of the men.

"African-Americans are very offended by blackface, and we found nothing funny when we saw that picture was posted," said Lei-Chala Wilson, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's San Diego branch.

It was at least the third incident this year in which costumed white revelers wearing blackface drew criticism.

In February, New York state Democratic Assemblyman Dov Hikind wore blackface makeup and donned an Afro-style wig at a party celebrating the Jewish holiday of Purim, a costume that was criticized by fellow lawmakers and the Anti-Defamation League bias monitoring group.

This week, actress Julianne Hough apologized after wearing dark makeup and a knotted hairdo at a costume party to portray an African-American character from the television show "Orange is the New Black."

Blackface was often used in minstrel shows in the 19th and early 20th centuries featuring white performers portraying African-Americans, often in a degrading manner. It is considered deeply offensive by many people.

After complaints from Wilson and others about the San Diego incident, school district officials investigated and suspended the three men, all employees at Serra High School, for two days, Superintendent Cindy Marten told a news conference on Friday.

"The situation at Serra High School ... does not reflect the values of our district or our schools," Marten said.

Marten did not identify the three men, but said they were profoundly sorry for what they had done.

"They have expressed a deep sense of remorse for the impact of their actions," Marten said. "They send their apologies to any person or group of people they have offended, and want to make clear it was not their intent to offend anyone."

The three men could not immediately be reached for comment.

Wilson said her organization got complaints about blackface costumes every year.

"A lot of times, when they pretend (to be black), then they try to act black, and normally the type of behavior they show is very insensitive," Wilson said.

(Reporting by Laila Kearney in San Francisco; Editing by Sharon Bernstein and Peter Cooney)

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