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

A father of a new high school student at Palo Alto High School said he “had no choice but to sue the school district after his son was kicked out of a summer school for refusing to wearing a mask, fearing his son would graduate. time.

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

Gokcek said the 17-year-old – called TG in the suit – had a speech disability made worse by wearing a mask and a medical condition that made donning unsafe. It is already difficult for people to understand his son without a mask, Gokcek said. With a “he will never speak in class again”.

Senior school district officials allege Gokcek’s claims are a smokescreen for his personal dislike of masks.

The school district asked Gokcek to provide proof of his son’s disability or health condition, or to undergo an assessment with the district health team, according to court documents. Gokcek declined in the absence of a written policy stating that this was the protocol to receive an exemption.

District Superintendent Don Austin said school officials were following evolving guidelines issued 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 reversed its steadfast position to deny unmasked students access to school campuses, stating instead that “schools should provide them with alternative educational opportunities.” In the fall, California students who refuse to wear masks will be able to pursue an independent study program, Austin said.

Palo Alto Unified did not offer virtual learning during the summer and would not accept credits from online courses taken outside the district, the two options requested by Gokcek’s son before going to class without a mask, depending on the costume.

Palo Alto Unified enabled students with disabilities and documented health issues to attend classes without a mask; some are required to wear a face shield instead. School district officials claimed that TG stopped receiving special education services for speech impairments in 2018, according to emails included in the lawsuit.

Still, Austin said, school officials in TG’s case made “every effort” to work with the family – efforts he said Gokcek resisted.

“It’s not about a handicap, it’s about a father who is against hiding,” Austin said.

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

Austin said Gokcek “abused the staff” during this interaction and demanded that they remove their masks. He said it was part of a story, referring to a case where the family showed up to an eighth-grade graduation ceremony without a face covering.

In an interview, Gokcek said he has a health issue that prevents him from wearing a mask, but declined to share details. He added that he had not requested a mask exemption for his daughter, who is in the first year of high school.

Superior Court Judge Helen Williams last week dismissed Gokcek’s request for a temporary restraining order that would have allowed TG to return to class. It didn’t look like the complainant’s case would end on the merits, she wrote, adding that it could be questionable: TG has already missed too many classes to successfully complete it, even though he’s allowed to return. .

But Gokcek is not giving up and plans to continue the prosecution by modifying the complaint and potentially adding co-defendants.

He said his son had already fallen behind in school. “My priority is really to ensure that my son can continue his studies and that he is not delayed for another year.

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