South Florida Sun Sentinel | By Angie DiMichele | April 26, 2022
Three police officers marched up the stairs at Westward Elementary School in West Palm Beach on the afternoon of Oct. 27, 2021, to Christopher Persaud’s classroom.
The 33-year-old fourth grade teacher had been asked multiple times to wear a face mask at a time when the Palm Beach County School District required them. He repeatedly refused.
And when Principal Bobbie Brooks told him he would need to leave campus that afternoon because he refused, Persaud wouldn’t do that either.
Persaud was led out of his classroom in handcuffs. He knew he would be arrested, and despite the officers’ willingness to give him a notice to appear in court on a later day, Persaud told officers, “No, process me,” an arrest report says.
On Tuesday, a jury found Persaud guilty of trespassing on school grounds after warning, a misdemeanor charge, after about an hour and a half of deliberation. County Judge Sherri Collins ordered Persaud to pay court costs of $323 within the next 30 days.
“I took that stand, I did it based on my religious values and Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior,” Persaud said to Collins after the verdict was delivered.
“I would have done it again for the sake of every teacher in Palm Beach County that was fearful about the mandates … and that’s why I chose to run, and it’s not a slight on anybody … But I did this for Christ. I did this for the American people,” he said.
About 12 people were in the courtroom to support Persaud throughout the day, including his mother, the pastor at his church and Cindy Falco DiCorrada, former candidate for Boynton Beach mayor who recently faced a jury herself after she was arrested in January 2021 on a trespassing charge for refusing to leave an Einstein Bros. Bagels in West Boca.
Persaud’s supporters sat shoulder-to-shoulder while attorneys questioned potential jurors. A few mumbled under their breaths throughout the selection process, causing one potential juror in front of them to interrupt Assistant State Attorney Andrew Simko’s questioning because she couldn’t hear him.
“We never believed in the mask mandate. It’s scientifically not proven to be effective. We never did and we never will,” Tonya Minott, co-pastor at Church of Divine Revelation Family Worship Center where Persaud attends, told the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “He said he was going to take a stand, and we said we’re going to stand with him.”
Falco DiCorrada, Minott and a few other supporters posed for quick photos with Persaud in the courtroom before jurors returned for more questioning, one supporter saying, “Say Salem mask trials!” and another shouting, “Freedom!”
The judge later told the spectators to turn their phones off and to stay quiet.
“I don’t want selfies going on here,” Collins said.
Defense Attorney Cory Strolla argued that the Palm Beach County School District’s mask mandate policy is not law and that Persaud had a religious exemption to the mask mandate, allowing him to wear a face shield instead. But no school officials or officers attempted to give Persaud a face shield the day he was arrested or any other, Strolla said.
Prosecutors argued that despite being given the option to wear a face shield, Persaud made it abundantly clear he wouldn’t wear a shield, mask or any other kind of facial covering and that Persaud was simply trespassing and had to face the consequences.
The defense said Persaud was given a religious exemption on Oct. 22, a few days before his arrest. Prosecutors rebutted that he was given no such exemption — the Palm Beach County School District only agreed to let him wear a face shield. And still he refused.
Principal Brooks, a former teacher and friend of Persaud, testified that Persaud gave him a heads up that he wouldn’t be following the mask mandate about two weeks before his arrest.
“He said, ‘Mr. Brooks, this is just no offense against you … I feel like I’m going to take a stand about the masks,’ Brooks said during testimony. “It wasn’t a reflection of my leadership … He was against it, and he had some religious convictions about it …”
So, Oct. 27, 2021, was his “Spartacus moment,” said Assistant State Attorney Jason Jovine in his opening statements.
“The defendant wanted to get arrested to make his statement. He wanted to be arrested to prove some type of point, I guess … The point is is that the school, the police, everybody involved bent over backward to try to accommodate this man, but he had something to prove that day,” Jovine said.
Brooks and the School District Police Department sergeant who arrested Persaud both testified that Persaud was well-aware that his choice to stay in the classroom after he was asked to leave would result in his arrest.
Strolla in his closing arguments pointed out that the sergeant who took Persaud into custody was seen on the surveillance video without a mask himself and was never told that the School District decided to allow Persaud to wear a face shield rather than a mask based on his religious beliefs.
“Nobody is saying police are bad. Nobody is saying the school system is bad. But in this case, they were just flat out wrong,” Strolla said.
In closing arguments, Simko stressed that Persaud was not arrested because he refused to wear a mask, only because he refused to leave the school.
“That’s why we’re here today,” Simko said. “This isn’t a case about masks or how you feel about masks or religious exemptions, ‘cause there is none. This isn’t a case about him sitting alone in a classroom … He refused to leave and that’s why we’re here today.”
Outside the courtroom before jurors delivered a verdict, Persaud said he refused to wear a mask and refused to leave that day because he “decided to take a stand” for himself, for “the American people” and, most importantly, for God.
“They detained me in cuffs for four hours on the school site. They didn’t know what to do with me. I told them, ‘No, process me.’ We’re not taking the easy way out,” Persaud said.