October 27, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Father says son with speech impairment was unfairly booted from Palo Alto school for not wearing a mask

A father of an incoming senior at Palo Alto High School said he “had no other choice” but to sue the school district after his son was kicked out of a summer class for refusing to wear a mask, citing fears his son would not graduate on time.

“I’m doing this to protect my son’s right to an education,” said A.J. Gokcek, the student’s father and attorney. He filed the suit against Palo Alto Unified School District this month in Santa Clara Superior Court.

Gokcek said the 17-year-old — referred to as T.G. in the suit — has a speech-related disability made worse by wearing a mask and a medical condition that makes donning one unsafe. It’s already hard for people to understand his son without a mask, Gokcek said. With one “he’s never going to speak in class again.”

The school district’s top brass allege Gokcek’s claims are a smokescreen for his personal aversion to masks.

The school district asked Gokcek to provide proof of his son’s disability or medical condition, or for him to submit to an assessment with the district’s health team, court documents show. Gokcek declined in the absence of a written policy showing that was the protocol to receive an exemption.

District Supt. Don Austin said school officials are following evolving guidelines handed down by the state, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Santa Clara County Public Health Department.

Last week, the California Department of Health backtracked on its hard stance of denying students without masks access to school campuses, instead stating that “schools should offer alternative educational opportunities” to them. In the fall, California students who decline to wear masks will be able to attend an independent study program, Austin said.

Palo Alto Unified did not offer virtual learning during the summer, and would not accept course credit from online classes taken outside the district, both options Gokcek’s son requested before heading to the classroom unmasked, according to the suit.

Palo Alto Unified has allowed students with documented disabilities and medical conditions to attend class without a mask; some are required to wear a face shield instead. School district officials maintained that T.G. stopped receiving special education services for speech difficulties in 2018, according to emails included in the lawsuit.

Still, Austin said, school officials in T.G.’s case made “every effort” to work with the family — efforts he said Gokcek resisted.

“This isn’t about a disability, this is about a father who is against masking,” Austin said.

When T.G. arrived at Henry M. Gunn High School on July 6 for a summer history class, he was denied entry and sent to the office. Gokcek was still waiting in the parking lot when he received a text message asking him to come in and discuss the situation with the principal, according to court documents.

Austin said Gokcek was “abusive to the staff” during that interaction and demanded they remove their masks. He said this was part of a history, referencing an instance where the family showed up to an eighth-grade graduation ceremony without face coverings.

In an interview, Gokcek said he has a medical condition that prevents him from wearing a mask, but declined to share details. He added that he has not sought a mask exemption for his daughter, who is a high school freshman.

Superior Court Judge Helen Williams last week denied Gokcek’s request for a temporary restraining order that would have allowed T.G. back into the classroom. It didn’t appear the plaintiff’s case would succeed on the merits, she wrote, adding that it might be moot: T.G. has already missed too much of his class to successfully complete it, even if allowed to return.

But Gokcek isn’t giving up, and plans to keep the suit going by amending the complaint and potentially adding more defendants.

He said his son has already fallen behind in school. “My priority is really seeing to it that my son is able to continue his studies and that he not be held back an additional year.”