Tampa mom who pulled kids from school over masks wins first legal battle in school sports suit
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coronavirus lawsuit
A Hillsborough judge granted a temporary injunction allowing her children to return to their teams.

Wednesday night, for the first time this season, Lazaro and Lelilani Urbay will take to the court and join their respective former schools’ volleyball teams in competition.

But that’s only because their mother, Amarilis Vazquez, took to the court herself.

Vazquez filed suit last month against Hillsborough County Public Schools. She disagreed with the district’s COVID-19 mask policy. She opted to withdraw her children from public school and accepted scholarships to private schools provided through the state Board of Education.

When she tried to get her children back on their old school’s sports teams — something she said was allowed by law — the district said no.

Late last month, a Hillsborough County judge sided with Vazquez. For now, at least. On Oct. 22, he granted a temporary motion for inductive release, allowing the students to return to their teams.

“They were looking forward to another year of participation to enhance their development as young people,” Judge James Barton wrote in the order. “They deserve the opportunity to participate while the merits of this action are litigated. If, in fact, Plaintiff prevails on the merits and a temporary injunction had not been entered to permit the children to participate at Ferrell and Franklin, no amount of money would give these children the missed opportunity of playing on active teams.”

Lazaro was enrolled at Franklin Boys Preparatory Academy and Leilani at Ferrell Girls Preparatory Academy. But they are zoned for Sligh Middle.

Vazquez said the district told her she could return the scholarship money and reenroll her children or have them play at their zoned school.

Hillsborough County Schools told Florida Politics last month “academic eligibility is determined solely by the Florida High School Athletics Association.”

Burton said part of his decision came down to how those bylaws and their relation to Florida statutes is interpreted.

“This case presents a unique set of facts with respect to whether magnet schools are part of controlled open enrollment such that a non-traditional student could choose a magnet school at which they are not enrolled or zoned to engage in extracurricular activities,” he wrote.

Florida statute states private school students can participate in public school sports at a public school “to which the student would be assigned according to district school board attendance area policies and procedures or which the student could choose to attend.”

Statute also allows for “controlled open enrollment,” which is a system to choose non-zoned schools. Magnet schools aren’t specifically included or excluded from that statute.

“The Court finds that at this juncture, Plaintiff sufficiently established that magnet schools are ones a student could choose to attend under controlled open enrollment,” Burton wrote. “Therefore, Ferrell and Franklin schools are ones at which these children can participate in extracurricular activities.”

Vazquez had also asked the court for $5,000 per day, per child in monetary damages. Burton, however only granted the motion in part, allowing the children to play.

Vazquez, who is an out-of-work state-certified EMT and single mother, said the money would help. But she’s happy to see her kids play again.

“My kids are happy to be back with their teammates. They feel vindicated and impressed that the justice system does work how they were taught in civics,” she said. “I am relieved that we as parents are being affirmed in our rights to choose what is best for our children.”

Hillsborough Schools said it could not comment on ongoing litigation.

Daniel Figueroa IV

Bronx, NY —> St. Pete, Fla. Just your friendly, neighborhood journo junkie with a penchant for motorcycles and Star Wars. Daniel has spent the last decade covering Tampa Bay and Florida for the Ledger of Lakeland, Tampa Bay Times, and WMNF. You can reach Daniel Figueroa IV at [email protected]


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