Florida school did not abuse disabled child Sofia Bezerra over mask dispute

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A Florida school and its staff did not commit child abuse when teachers strapped a mask to the head of a seven-year-old girl with down syndrome, a police report found.

“Based on the facts and logical persuasiveness of the evidence presented in this case, there is insufficient evidence to support a criminal violation against,” her teacher and instructional assistant of 7-year-old Sofia Bezerra, according to a police report obtained by the Post on Monday. 

“There is no evidence presented which supports Sofia’s physical or emotional injury. This case is closed as Unfounded.”

The report, signed by Indian Harbour Beach Police Detective Jim Adams, concludes an initial investigation into allegations of child abuse by the girl’s stepfather Jeffrey Steel last month. The case is being forwarded to the Florida State Attorney’s Office for further review.

Steel claimed that his 7-year-old step-daughter Sofia, who has down syndrome and is nonverbal, got off the bus from Ocean Breeze Elementary School with a saliva-soaked mask strapped to her the back of her head with a piece of string on Oct. 7, which he said made it difficult for her to breathe.

Jeffrey Steele claimed that the mask made it hard for Sofia to breathe.
Jeffrey Steele claimed that the mask made it hard for Sofia to breathe.
FOX 35 Orlando

He said Sofia’s teacher and instructional assistant forced her to wear the mask in this fashion for six weeks without asking for consent or informing himself or her mother, which the school admitted it should have done in the police report.

“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,” Steel’s attorney Nick Whithey said in a statement on Monday. 

“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.”

Sofia Bezerra was masked by the school for six weeks before her stepfather became aware.
Sofia Bezerra was masked by the school for six weeks before her stepfather became aware.
Jeffrey Steele

“Attorneys for the family have pointed out that the instant a teacher touched Sofia, 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,” Whitney said.

The family plans to file a civil lawsuit later this week, he told The Post.

According to the report, the method of fastening the mask with string was suggested to Sofia’s teacher through an online pamphlet published by the Down Syndrome Resource Foundation as an acceptable measure to ensure a mask stays on children with the condition.

The report also noted the photographs of Sofia that Steel had provided to law enforcement and national media outlets were taken two days after Sofia returned from school with the mask tied on when Steel told police they were taken, according to the photos’ metadata.

The photographs of Sofia wearing the mask provided to the media were taken days after the initial incident happened.
The photographs of Sofia wearing the mask provided to the media were taken days after the initial incident happened.
FOX 35 Orlando

The four photos, shared with media when the story broke, show Sofia with a disposable face mask with a blue string fastened to each of the mask’s ear loops behind her head.

School officials did not deny the photo’s accuracy, admitting to investigators that they had used a string to tie the mask to Sofia’s face in a similar fashion.

Steel’s story was quickly picked up by national media as well as Florida officials embattled in debates over school mask mandates including Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has banned mask mandates in Florida school districts by executive order earlier this year.



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