Parents in Florida are suing their daughter’s school district after a teacher reportedly used a shoestring to strap a mask onto her face, despite the fact she was exempt due to Down Syndrome.
The girl’s stepfather, Jeffrey Steel, called police after he discovered the mask strapped to 7-year-old Sofia’s face with a nylon shoelace by someone at Ocean Breeze Elementary school on Oct. 7.
The next day, Steel and his wife reported the incident to police, who launched an investigation into the allegations.
Police interviewed school staff who admitted to tying the shoelace to the child’s face, but investigators claimed the child was OK with it because she didn’t show any signs of distress.
After a lengthy investigation, which included reviewing bus camera footage to see if the girl tugged at her mask or showed signs of distress, police concluded: “There was no evidence presented which supports (the child) received a physical or emotional injury.”
However, Sofia’s mom told investigators the 7-year-old should have been exempt from the district’s mask policy due to her Down Syndrome diagnosis, and added she never OK’d the district to mask her.
A report from ClickOrlando.com says Steel also visited a rally for Gov. Ron DeSantis recently where he discussed Sofia’s predicament.
According to Fox35 Orlando, the school may have got the idea to use a shoestring on the child from the Down Syndrome Resource Foundation’s website, which listed a shoelace strap as an effective modification for keeping masks in place.
A statement released by the family’s attorney, Nick Whitney, referred to the school’s actions as “child abuse,” and said when Sofia arrived home her “mask was soaked through with saliva.”
“Under both the Brevard County School Board’s mask policy and Florida law, Sofia was not to be masked, except at her parents’ sole discretion,” Whitney pointed out in his statement.
The lawyer also acknowledged several media reports omitted key admissions by the school that Sofia had been forced to wear a mask for six weeks before her parents found out about the issue.
“Brevard school officials continued to mask children even after the Florida Department of Health issued an Emergency Rule requiring that masking of any child in school be done only at the parents’ sole discretion,” Whitney wrote.
While the investigation by police found no wrongdoing on the part of school officials, the case is being forwarded to the state attorney’s office for final review.
Meanwhile, Gov. DeSantis commented on Sofia’s case earlier this week saying, “It was wrong to force that mask on her.”
“She’s got Down syndrome. People are making a big deal today about police didn’t think they should bring criminal charges. I never said anything about criminal charges. She was not treated right. That school district was not following state policy. That’s just a fact. And now we’re happily in a better place where people’s rights are respected and parents’ rights are being respected. And I think that that’s just a much better situation for all involved.”
Brevard Public Schools also released a statement claiming the parents’ motivation was “political.”
“It is unfortunate that this became a political battle when it should have been about ensuring the health of a student. The thorough police investigation shows there was no abuse. The facts coming out in the police report is a good reminder of the danger of jumping to conclusions,” a school spokesperson wrote.
A GiveSendGo fundraiser launched for Sophia’s legal defense has so far raised over $100,000.
Read the family’s attorney’s statement in full below via ClickOrlando.com, who attempted, but failed to conceal the child’s name:
On Thursday, October 7th, Shirley Bezerra greeted her daughter (redacted) as she stepped off of the school bus from Ocean Breeze Elementary. Sofia had a mask tied to her face with a blue cord or shoelace. Shirley immediately called her husband and Sofia’s step-father Jeffrey Steel to let him know that Sofia had arrived home with a mask tied to her face. Both were understandably upset. Sofia’s mask was soaked through with saliva and it was not clear to Shirley how long her daughter had been masked without her consent.
Sofia has Down’s Syndrome who is non-verbal due in part to an enlarged tongue. Because of her condition, the Brevard school had implemented an Individualized Education Plan (“IEP”). Under both the Brevard County School Board’s mask policy and Florida law, Sofia was not to be masked, except at her parents’ sole discretion.
Last week, the Indian Harbor Beach Police Department released a report revealing that during interviews school officials and Sofia’s teachers admitted that they did not only mask Sofia on October 7th, but had been tying a mask tightly to Sofia’s face for six weeks to guarantee that she could not remove it. Videos confirmed that Sofia was masked and that the school’s masking of Sofia was concealed from her parents for weeks. The principal at Sofia’s school confirmed that the school’s policy was to speak with the parents before ever tying a mask to a child’s face, and that did not happen.
For unknown reasons, certain press outlets have focused on the timing of the photos that Jeff and Shirley took of their daughter (redacted) to demonstrate to officials the manner in which the mask was tied to her face. The Indian Harbour Police report confirms that the photos taken by Shirley show how Ocean Breeze teachers tied the mask to Sofia’s face. This early reporting also ignores the admission by school officials that (redacted) WAS masked without her parents’ knowledge for six weeks. Brevard school officials continued to mask children even after the Florida Department of Health issued an Emergency Rule requiring that masking of any child in school be done only at the parents’ sole discretion. The Brevard County School Board did not challenge the state’s no-masking without parental consent rule, which was upheld by an administrative law judge earlier this month.
One outlet in particular, Florida Today, reported that the IHB PD had determined that there was insufficient evidence that any crimes were committed against Sofia. Jeff and Shirley have consistently maintained that it was not their goal to have someone jailed. Attorneys for the family have pointed out that from the instant a teacher touched (redacted), a mentally and physically challenged child, to tie a mask to her face without state authority or parental consent, they were guilty of child abuse under Chapter 827, Florida Statutes. The IHB police report has been forwarded to the State Attorney’s office for final review. Sofia’s parents, however, are determined that the responsible Brevard Public Schools officials and school board members be held accountable for their lawless masking of Sofia.
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