Florida educators forced a young girl with Down syndrome to wear a mask by tying it to her head despite it putting the non-verbal child in possible danger, a furious father claims.
Sofia Steele — a 7-year-old girl from Indian Harbour Beach, Florida — allegedly stepped off the school bus on Oct. 7 with a face mask on. Jeffery Steele, the 7-year-old's father, thought it was strange since she had never come home from school wearing a mask. Upon further inspection, the father said he found that the face mask was tied around the girl's head with a blue nylon string and held in place with hair clips. The mask was allegedly soaked with saliva.
"I was so angry so I waited four days from Thursday 7th to Tuesday after Columbus Day because I really need to calm down," Steel told WOFL-TV. "When this child got off the bus and had the mask it was tied around the back of her head underneath her ponytail and it was quite tight around her face."
The father believed his daughter was exempt from Ocean Breeze Elementary School's mask mandate because of her disability. Sofia has an enlarged tongue and breathes through her mouth, which makes wearing a face mask potentially dangerous. The father said that Sofia has an individual education plan at the school that caters to her special needs.
"Medically, she could aspirate. She could asphyxiate all sorts of medical things that could happen and because of her breathing because of her enlarged tongue could cause seizures," Steele said.
Ocean Breeze Elementary School is located in Brevard County, which implemented a mask mandate on Aug. 30, and recently extended the policy until Oct. 29. The county's mask mandate defied the executive order by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis banning students from being required to wear masks in school and allowing the parents to decide, which was later blocked by a federal judge.
Previously, there was no parent "opt-out" option in Brevard County schools, but that changed on Friday after weekly cases dropped to 50 per 100,000 in Brevard County, giving parents the option to decide if children should wear face masks at school.
Sofia struggles to communicate, so her parents don't know how long she had been purportedly forced to wear a face mask, but the father believes that the school forced the mask on his daughter for six weeks. He suspects that the teacher took off Sofia's mask every day before leaving school, except on Oct. 7.
Steele asked, "Why in the world, since the mandate happened back in September and you were going to begin to put this on my child then tie it on my child, would you never pick up the phone and call me and ask me to give me my informed consent?"
Previously, the school had allegedly been in touch with Sofia's parents because a teacher was concerned that the girl was removing her shoes in class.
Steele pulled his daughter out of Ocean Breeze Elementary School and has hired an attorney.
The father also set up a crowdfunding campaign on GiveSendGo titled "Sofia's rights," which states: "All proceeds raised from this fundraising campaign will help offset the legal costs necessary in taking on the school and our local government." The campaign has raised nearly $35,000 at the time of publication.
The school district has responded to the allegations.
"The student was given a medical mask exemption as soon as the mother made the request to school leadership," Brevard Public Schools chief strategic communications officer Russell Bruhn said in a statement. "The school district is investigating and is in the process of gathering all the facts. BPS strives to ensure each student has the best educational experience possible and will continue in that effort."
Father of child with Down syndrome says mask was tied around his daughter's head www.youtube.com
State Representative Randy Fine (R) blasted educators and the school board for forcibly masking the girl with Down syndrome.
Fine said Steele went to the school for answers about his daughter having a mask tied to her head.
"And he found out that they didn't do it that day, they had tied this mask around her face every single day for the previous six weeks that she was in school," Fine said. "They just forgot to take it off that day before they sent her home."
Fine said the teacher and the principal told Sofia's parents that they were instructed to have all students wear face masks by the school board.
"There's a special place in hell for the three people who did this to this girl," Fine said during a meeting last week. "This girl experienced real child abuse at the hands of the Brevard County School Board, and I will tell you this: this Session, there's going to be hell to pay for the people who did that."
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