Jeffery Steele's daughter, Sofia Steele, is nonverbal and has an enlarged tongue. On Oct. 7, Sofia stepped off of the school bus with a mask, wet from her saliva, tied to her head with a thin, nylon string, Steele told Fox News Digital, but she did not leave for school with a mask on that day or any day prior.
Sofia has an individual education plan (IEP), and educators are supposed to inform parents of any changes made to their children's IEPs, Steele said. But the school never informed him or his wife that they were going to require Sofia to wear a mask, and no one asked the parents for their consent in tying it to her face during school.
Steele emphasized that his daughter breathes through her mouth and cannot speak, so wearing a mask is dangerous for her health in more ways than one.
Ocean Breeze Elementary School in Indian Harbour Beach implemented its own mask mandate in September in defiance of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' efforts to ban schools from requiring children to wear masks.
"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."
Steele went to the school on Oct. 12 with the service officer assigned to the school to demand answers. He waited several days to voice his concerns because he needed to "take some time" to collect himself, he said. It was at that meeting that school personnel allegedly admitted to Steele that they had been tying Sofia's mask to her face or holding it in place with hair clips for about six weeks without her parents' consent.
The father noted that Sofia had never come home with a mask on prior to Oct. 7, so he speculates that school personnel had been taking it off before sending her home on the bus.
"I was just flabbergasted," Steele said.
The school had previously informed Sofia's parents that she had been removing her shoes at school. Steele and his wife contacted Ocean Breeze around that time because they "saw big behavior changes in Sofia at home."
"We wanted to work with the school — we were working with her IEP — because we were getting notes all the time about Sofia's behavior at school," Steele said. "This was concerning to us because we were seeing the same sort of negative behavior at home, and we told them that. We still did not know there was a mask on her face at this time."
Steele has hired an attorney and is pulling his daughter out of Ocean Breeze.
"We don't want her to be a spectacle," the father said. Sofia's parents have also set up a fundraiser for their daughter on GiveSendGo called "Sofia's rights."
DeSantis and Republican Florida Rep. Randy Fine highlighted Sofia's story on Wednesday, and Fine is considering introducing legislation during a special session that would increase penalties for people who force children to wear masks without their parents' consent.
"This is already criminal. I…plan to introduce legislation to increase the penalty," Fine told Fox News. "…We're going to be having a special session in Tallahassee, and I expect that we'll pass a law in Sofia's honor that puts people like Brevard Heart school board members who did this to Sofia in prison for a very long time."
Fine added that he was "sick" when he heard Steele's story about his daughter.