Winter Springs High student arrested after refusing to wear face mask

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Orlando Sentinel | by Leslie Postal | October 6, 2020

A 16-year-old boy was arrested at Winter Springs High School after refusing to wear a face mask in an incident the family’s attorney on Monday called “government abuse” of a teenager suffering from panic attacks.

A Seminole County Sheriff’s Office report for the Sept. 17 incident shows the teenager’s refusal to wear a mask or abide by other school rules led to his arrest because he was on probation and required by court order to maintain good behavior in school.

But the report also says the 10th grader, whose name was blacked out, never mentioned a medical condition on the day of his arrest.

Alexis Rodriguez said her son, whom she identified only with the initials A.P., has an anxiety disorder. He was arrested, she said, after he went to the school office to ask for some water because he was feeling panicky and unwell. He refused to put on a mask because he was having trouble breathing, she said.

“I couldn’t grasp it at first. Because of a mask?” she said. “You have his records. I was just in a disbelief.”

Face masks are a requirement for students and staff on all Seminole public school campuses during the coronavirus pandemic.

The sheriff’s report said the teenager was issued a discipline referral by a school dean — it does not specify what for — and then arrested because he was on probation and, as a condition of that probation, could not get in trouble on campus, the report noted.

A spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office said the arrest was for probation violations, not violations of the school district’s mask rules.

Rodriguez declined to say why her son was on probation. She said he had to appear in court on Oct. 1 after the arrest at school, and the prosecutor declined to pursue the case.

Michael Lawrence, a spokesman for the Seminole school district, said in an email that the school district does not comment on student discipline and so could not answer questions about the incident.

The sheriff’s office report said that the teenager had been in trouble on Sept. 1 because he “had been asked to wear a mask multiple times without putting it on,” had refused to keep his “social distance” from school staff and had been caught vaping in the cafeteria.

That day, Adrian Richardson, the school resource deputy, said he spoke with the teenager and warned him that getting in trouble at school was a violation of his probation and could lead to his arrest if it happened again.

Rodriguez said that on Sept. 4 she met with school staff to seek an exemption to the face mask rule for her son because of his anxiety attacks. It was not granted, however, as she had not provided the needed documentation.

Lawrence said that high school staff, after a meeting with Rodriguez, told her they would reconsider her request for a face mask exemption, if she provided more information.

“She was given another opportunity to produce and provide further information according to the school, however, they have yet to receive any further documentation,” he added.

Rodriguez said she was working to get needed paperwork from a psychiatrist when her son was arrested.

On Sept. 17, Richardson wrote, he was again called to the discipline office to speak with the teenager. He asked him to comply with a dean’s request and again warned him of the consequences if he did not. Only when the student still refused did the officer arrest him, the report said.

The arrest report, quoting from the dean’s statement, said the teenager “never mentioned feeling ill or any other medical reason why he could not comply with SCPS rules.”

Jose Rivas, the family’s attorney, said the teenager’s prior record didn’t excuse what he viewed as an uncalled for action.

“Should they be arresting a 16-year-old child knowing he already has a medical condition?” he said.

A deputy called Rodriguez to tell her of her son’s arrest as he was being taken to the juvenile detention center in Sanford. She was able to pick him up there later that day.

Her son has not returned to school since then.

“He just feels like they will target him again,” she said. “It’s really taken a toll on him.”

The family is moving to Lake County and, in the meantime, Rodriguez said her son will do some type of online education program.

In a statement, Rivas’ law firm called the arrest “government abuse” and added, “We will be seeking just and fair compensation for the illegal arrest … and the harm that this action caused him.”