Family Suing After Maskless Student With Disability Barred From School
SAN FRANCISCO — When a Palo Alto high school student didn’t wear his mask on the first day of summer school this month, he was sent to the office.
But the student has a speech-related disability that makes it hard for him to pronounce certain sounds and letters clearly — and also means he cannot wear a mask safely, according to a lawsuit filed against the Palo Alto Unified School District by the student’s father, A.J. Gokcek.
But the school district didn’t budge, according to the suit, saying that there wasn’t enough medical evidence to support an exemption.
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Now, the student’s family is suing the school district, demanding that school officials provide access to on-campus learning — without a face mask.
“What are students who can’t wear a mask supposed to do? Are public schools closed to them?” Gokcek said. “I just want my son to get an education like every other student.”
As of last Tuesday, schools are required to provide “alternative educational opportunities for students” who refuse to wear a face covering, according to the California Department of Public Health. But when Gokcek’s son started summer school, that rule was not yet in place.
Before the summer school term started, the student, referred to only as T.G. in the complaint, sent the summer school principal two emails — one asking if he could attend class virtually, and the other asking if he could earn his summer credits online through a high school outside Palo Alto Unified School district rather than seek a mask exemption. He was told no on both counts, the lawsuit said.
Then his father — who is also the attorney on the case — asked if the district could grant his son an exception to the mask rule, which the district says it does on a case-by-case basis. After a back-and-forth with different district officials, who recommended that the father seek an assessment with the school nurse, the request was denied, according to the lawsuit.
But the family did not seek an assessment with the nurse, both the school district and Gokcek confirmed.
Still, when summer school started a few days later on July 6, T.G. did not wear a mask. That’s when he was sent to the principal’s office.
The lawsuit alleges that the exemptions listed in the California Department of Public Health’s guidance on masks in schools should include the student’s condition. The school district disagrees.
“The father was offered numerous opportunities to work with the staff, like families have done for the last year and a half. His son does not have … any documentation of a qualifying disability,” Don Austin, the superintendent for the school district, said in a written statement.
But Gokcek said that he wanted to see a written policy from the school about mask exemptions before he sent over “any sensitive information” about his son, rather than just deference to the state guidelines. He also said that state guidelines don’t say anything about providing documentation or a doctor’s note.
“We could have discussed many options, but the father is simply against masking,” Austin said, adding that the father also refused to comply with mask requirements for his family in the stands at his other child’s eighth-grade graduation in June.
Gokcek said that he has the same communication disability as his son, and that the exemption he wanted at the graduation was only for the two of them, not for the whole family. He said that he was “invoking (his) rights” by not wearing a mask, adding that the ceremony was outdoors and that many families didn’t wear masks.
“The student has predominately honors and AP classes,” Austin added. “We expect people unhappy with masking laws to file lawsuits across the state and country. This lawsuit seems misdirected.”
The lawsuit comes against the backdrop of tumultuous state guidance on masks in schools.
Updated California guidelines posted last Monday — one week after this lawsuit was filed — ordered schools to “exclude” students from campus if they refuse to wear a face covering. But after public outcry, officials removed the line on Tuesday, adding the requirement for alternative education options instead.
“The original wording was made in error,” said Alex Stack, a spokesperson for Gov. Gavin Newsom. “The guidance was updated to allow for schools to continue enforcing the mask mandate as they have done for the past year while also being able to provide independent study options for students who refuse to wear a mask.”
California’s school mask requirement differs from guidance provided by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which advised that vaccinated students and staff could stop wearing masks at school.
For their part, schools are doing their best to keep up with the rules from the state.
“PAUSD, like all school districts, is following the rules set at the state and county levels by health professionals,” Austin wrote. “We have followed the rules from day one and will continue to follow them in the future. If the rules change at some point in time, we will follow immediately.”
Meanwhile, Gokcek said his son was dropped from the summer school class, which might put him behind for graduation. He’s now focused on getting the mask exemption for the fall, saying that he just wants his son to be back in the classroom “with everyone else” rather than whatever the alternative is that’s required by the state.
“We’ll accept the risk” that comes with their son not wearing a mask, Gokcek said, emphasizing that it’s a medical issue, not just a refusal to comply. “If he has to wear a mask, he’ll never speak again.”
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