Parents suing Riverhead school district over pandemic-era mask mandate

Two parents have filed a lawsuit against the Riverhead Central School District for continuing to enforce a mask mandate even after a Nassau County judge ruled that the public health measure was “enacted unlawfully … and therefore void and unenforceable as a matter of law” last year.

In the lawsuit, which was filed in Suffolk Supreme Court late last year, parents Monique Parsons, who has two children in the district, and Jennifer Venth, who has one child in the district, allege that the district violated their childrens’ civil rights, denied them an education, attacked their mental and physical well being and broke the law through its COVID-19 protocols.

According to the complaint, the parents argue that the district “compelled [their daughters] to wear masks to school despite its harmful effects. Defendants then took it a step further though [sic] severe disciplinary measures and discrimination that went beyond the text of the unconstitutional regulation they were supposedly following.”

The students were enrolled at Pulaski Street School and the Riverhead Middle School last January when they arrived at school without a mask on Jan. 25, 2022 — a day after Nassau Supreme Court Judge Thomas Rademaker ruled that state health commissioner Mary Bassett did not have the proper authority to issue the mask mandate in the first place.

District employees reportedly pulled the students from a first period class and placed them in “segregation rooms,” for the entirety of the school day, where they were isolated from their peers, not allowed to speak and, in some instances, not provided adequate meal or bathroom breaks.

“In the following week, school became a prison,” the filing states, adding that the district forced masks “as a condition to receive their guaranteed right to an education.”

The suit also notes that the three students could not tolerate masks for a variety of reasons including wearing glasses, which fogged up while wearing the mask. While two of them were granted mask exemptions, the plaintiffs argue that one student was instead asked to wear a face shield, which made her “the target of bullying from her peers.”

The complaint, filed by Uniondale-based attorney Chad Laveglia, lists the school district, Board of Education, superintendent, two principals and a teacher as defendants, who are accused of violating the students’ civil rights by segregating the students based on their disability and socioeconomic status, plus negligent infliction of emotional distress and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The building principals are accused of unlawful imprisonment for isolating the students, who “did not consent to being confined” and also endangering the welfare of a child along with a teacher at the middle school. 

In a response filed Jan. 6, the defendants collectively denied the allegations set forth in the lawsuit.

The school district is represented by the law firm Silverman & Associates in White Plains. A message left for attorney Lewis Silverman Monday was not immediately returned.

Ms. Parsons and Ms. Venth are seeking monetary damages for each alleged act of discrimination under the state civil rights law, plus emotional distress and punitive damages for the district’s “outrageous and egregious conduct as well as to serve as an example to prevent school districts from harming students under the guise of furthering the public good.”

After Judge Rademaker’s ruling, state Attorney General Letitia James filed a motion to stay the ruling as the decision was appealed. The ensuing court battle sparked fierce public debate and demonstrations, including an “unmask our kids” rally held outside Riverhead High School on Jan. 27, 2022.

Ms. Parsons, who mounted an unsuccessful campaign for the Riverhead Board of Education in 2021, has been outspoken about her opposition to the mask mandate.

“My two children have mask exemptions but I’m here anyway,” Ms. Parsons said during an August 2012 Board of Education meeting.

“I could walk away, but I won’t do that, because there are 5,800 other students and their parents and they all deserve a voice because their parents are unable to be here tonight or they are too afraid to speak because they think they’ll be retaliated [against]. Our children are riddled with anxiety because it has been drilled into their heads for a year and a half that they must put on a mask or risk consequences”

The mask mandate was ultimately lifted statewide in early February for most places except schools. 

In late February 2022, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced that the mask mandates — an unpopular and controversial policy for many parents across the state — would be lifted as students returned from their midwinter recess.

Individual counties and cities could have enacted their own mandates, though none on Long Island did.

The Riverhead Board of Education voted unanimously at a special meeting on Feb. 28, 2022 to repeal the mask mandate, which was first enacted for the 2020-2021 school year.