Texas files federal lawsuit against Gov. Abbott and TEA over ban on mask mandates

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Thursday, August 19, 2021
Federal lawsuit filed against Abbott and TEA over ban on mask mandates
The lawsuit was filed by Disability Rights Texas on behalf of 14 children and their families, who claim Abbott's order is discriminatory and puts students with disabilities at risk.

AUSTIN, Texas (KTRK) -- Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is now facing a federal lawsuit over his statewide ban on mask mandates, making it the first since the order was signed.

Disability Rights Texas, a federally-designated legal protection and advocacy agency for Texans with disabilities, is suing the governor and Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath on behalf of 14 children and their families.

The lawsuit was filed late Tuesday night with the help of the agency's bono partners Winston & Strawn LLP, a law firm based in Chicago.

"Under [Abbott's] order, parents of these children face an untenable choice: educate their children at school and expose them to potential severe illness, long COVID, and even death or keep their children home, where they will receive a fraction of their education in one of the least integrated settings available with limited to no exposure to non-disabled peers," said Tom Melsheimer, an attorney with Winston & Strawn. "Either outcome is a violation of students' rights under the ADA and Section 504, and both are wholly avoidable."

The suit claims Abbott's GA-38 executive order, which prevents local Texas governments from implementing mask mandates, is putting students with disabilities at risk.

The agency also claims the order is discriminatory and violates the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act is a national law that protects qualified individuals from discrimination based on their disability. You can read more about on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' website.

The lawsuit asks for a temporary restraining order that requires Abbott, the TEA along with several school districts named to cease violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 and allow local school districts and local public health authorities to require masks for its students and staff as they determine is necessary.

"Students with disabilities need in-person schooling more than other student groups, but they must be able to receive instruction and services safely," read a press release issued on Wednesday. "Many of these students have underlying health conditions and are at high risk for illness and even death due to COVID-19."

Read the full lawsuit below:

In addition, the agency identified one of the 14 child plaintiffs as J.R., an 8-year-old girl from Bexar County who attends San Antonio ISD.

Earlier this week, the Texas Supreme Court temporarily blocked mask mandates in Bexar and Dallas counties. The 4th Court of Appeals in San Antonio upheld a lower court ruling that permitted Bexar County to require mask-wearing in public schools.

READ MORE: Texas Supreme Court temporarily halts mask orders in Dallas and Bexar counties

They said she lives with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, a growth hormone deficiency, and moderate to severe asthma.

According to the agency, the girl's mother, Julia Longoria, is worried that her daughter is at greater risk of serious illness, hospitalization and even death if she contracts COVID-19.

"Having to make a choice between my daughter's education or her life - what kind of choice is that?" said Longoria. "My child has the right to an education and to be safe at school. I shouldn't have to choose."

Late Wednesday afternoon, Ranae Eze, Gov. Abbott's press secretary, responded to the lawsuit with the following:

"Governor Abbott cares deeply about the health and safety of disabled students, as he does for all Texas students. Since his accident that left him paralyzed, the Governor has worked throughout his career to protect the rights of all those with disabilities in Texas."