BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – The story of a 7-year-old girl with Down syndrome having a mask tied onto her face at a Brevard County school gained national attention. An investigation by Indian Harbor Beach police found there was no evidence to suggest that the mask being tied to the girl constituted some form of child abuse.
Police said they were contacted by the girl’s stepfather, Jeffrey Steel, on Oct. 8 to inform them that someone at Ocean Breeze Elementary had tied a mask to the 7-year-old’s head without her parents’ knowledge.
[TRENDING: Become a News 6 Insider (it’s free!)]
According to Steel, his wife, the child’s mother, spotted the mask on the girl as she was getting off the bus on Oct. 7, with the straps of the mask bound together with a shoelace and knotted on the back of the girl’s head to hold it in place, records show.
Police said the man was informed by his wife that she had removed the mask from the girl, but Steel claimed he told her to put the mask back on and take pictures to document it.
Steel claimed the photos were taken on the same day that his wife had noticed the girl wearing the mask; however, investigators said once they received the photos, they were able to determine that the photos were actually taken two days after the fact, on Oct. 9.
Steel also told police the 7-year-old was “never put on the bus with a mask on,” according to the case report.
Police then interview Steel’s wife. The woman told investigators that when she removed the mask from her child, there were no marks on the child’s face which might have indicated that the mask was on too tight, records show. The mother also stated that there was nothing in the child’s individualized education program, IEP, to indicate the 7-year-old should not be wearing a mask and that she never wrote the school asking for their daughter to be exempted from the district’s masking policy; however, she added that the school also never asked if it was OK for the girl to wear a mask.
Investigators said they then spoke with members of the school staff. Several staff members acknowledged using the shoelace to secure the mask on the child, records show, but added that they never tied it tightly or saw any distress from the girl as a result of the mask. The staff said they used an example from the Down Syndrome Resource Foundation of using a shoelace or a drawstring to keep the mask in place.
Staff added that the girl knew sign language to ask for help and would often do so and that this ability was not hampered by the mask, according to police.
Staff said they also sent a note home with all of their students, including the girl, stating the district’s masking policy, though they did acknowledge they had no evidence that the 7-year-old’s parents saw the note and that they never contacted her parents directly.
Police said they observed surveillance video from the girl’s bus and inside the school, none of which showed the girl struggling because of the mask and even showed her removing the mask on her own.
Ultimately, police found there was no evidence, based on their investigation, to warrant any criminal charges against the staff for securing the mask on the 7-year-old girl; however, the investigation was forwarded on to the state attorney’s office for further review.
While the investigation was ongoing, Steel attended a political rally with Gov. Ron DeSantis in which he complained about the girl being forced to wear a mask.
Steel’s attorney released a statement on the findings of the police investigation Monday. You can read the full statement below; however, News 6 has decided not to identify the child involved in this story and her name has been removed from the statement:
On Thursday, October 7th, Shirley Bezerra greeted her daughter (redacted) as she stepped off of the school bus from Ocean Breeze Elementary. (Redacted) had a mask tied to her face with a blue cord or shoelace. Shirley immediately called her husband and (redacted)’s step-father Jeffrey Steel to let him know that (redacted) had arrived home with a mask tied to her face. Both were understandably upset. (Redacted)’s mask was soaked through with saliva and it was not clear to Shirley how long her daughter had been masked without her consent.
(Redacted) 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 (redacted)’s teachers admitted that they did not only mask (redacted) 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 (redacted) was masked and that the school’s masking of (redacted) was concealed from her parents for weeks. The principal at (redacted)’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 (redacted)’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 (redacted). 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. (Redacted)’s parents, however, are determined that the responsible Brevard Public Schools officials and school board members be held accountable for their lawless masking of (redacted).Nick Whitney, Esq.
Also during the course of the investigation, State Rep. Randy Fine, R-Brevard County, repeatedly called the masking of the girl “child abuse.”
When questioned about the findings of the police, Fine doubled down on his statements.
“What’s clear is that Brevard Public Schools intentionally tied a mask to her face for six weeks. If that’s not abuse, I don’t know what is,” Fine said. “I respectfully disagree that you can forcibly tie a mask around a child’s face every day for six weeks and there not be some effect from that.”
The governor also addressed the findings of police during a news conference in Orlando Monday.
“It was wrong to force that mask on her,” DeSantis said. “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 about the findings and the resulting fallout.
“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,” the statement reads.