Disabled Sue DeSantis As Threat To Defund Schools Draws Critics

Parents of 15 students with disabilities claim their right to a public education is violated by governor's demand that parents decide if their children wear masks in school.

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Gov. Ron DeSantis’ threat to defund public school systems that mandate masks is coming under fire from Washington to Tallahassee and now in a federal lawsuit filed Friday in South Florida.

Ten-year-old Will Hayes has Down syndrome, which puts him at much greater risk if he catches COVID than the other Orange County fourth graders he hopes to join in school next week.

"He likes to be with his friends, he likes to be integrated into the school environment," said attorney Matthew Dietz. "He shouldn’t have to be in a trailer isolated just because he has a disability."

So Will’s parents and those of 14 other disabled students on Friday sued DeSantis, the state Department of Education and school boards, seeking an injunction to prevent the state from discriminating against the disabled students by denying them a safe environment.

"Some children not wearing masks at school puts children with disabilities at risk of getting sick and they’re at greater risk of getting sick with greater risk of injury than anyone else," said Dietz, one of the attorneys with the Disability Independence Group, who filed the lawsuit.

The parents join others, from Washington to Tallahassee, criticizing DeSantis' actions.

"The issue we have taken with the guidance of Governor DeSantis -- which of course he is fundraising off of, I think we should note -- is that he is preventing schools and teachers and others from protecting themselves and the students in their classroom," White House press secretary Jenn Psaki said Friday.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried appeared in the Cabinet Room Friday to criticize DeSantis, who she hopes to unseat in the 2022 election.

Holding up a facemask, she said, "This right now is the only safe opportunity for so many kids that are 12 and under... Unfortunately we continue to hear misinformation when it comes to the risk of COVID in children as some reject the advice of our scientists and our medical doctors when it comes to keeping students safe as they return to school."

But DeSantis says parents, not medical experts, know best and that requiring masks is harassment.

At an afternoon appearance in the Panhandle, DeSantis said he was "the governor who protects parents and their ability to make the right choices for their education."

But other parents say they think that prevents their disabled children from safely returning to class.

"Parents are having to decide for their own heath and safety these kids must stay home," said Dietz. "What Governor DeSantis’ rule does is it shuts the schoolhouse doors on kids with disabilities."

The governor is standing firm.

"I’m the governor who answers to the people in Florida not to bureaucrats in Washington," he said, prompting applause from his audience in Marianna.

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