Federal Judge Carlos E. Mendoza, in the Middle District of Florida issued a ruling today on the “Sofia Case” of Jeffrey and Shirley Steel vs Brevard County School Board, Superintendent Mark Mullins, Chairwoman Misty Belford, Cheryl McDougall, and Jennifer Jenkins and two teachers. Judge Mendoza ruled in favor of the Defendants on all considered matters, and dismissed all remaining claims, and closed the case. The actual order detailing his decision is sealed.
This brings an end to the lawsuit filed by Jeffrey Steel seeking $100,000,000 from the Defendants, claiming that his step-daughter Sofia was forcibly masked at school, abused, and injured as a result. Part of the lawsuit also claimed that Jenkins defamed him as well. All of those things were found to be not true.
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This case started when Jeffrey Steel, step-father of Sofia who has Down Syndrome and was 7 at the time, called for a police investigation when he says that Sofia exited the school bus with a facemask tied tightly around her head with rope. He went on to claim that Sofia was in distress, panicked, and couldn’t breath. Steel posted photos on social media to support his claims. This was during the time that there was still a mask-mandate in place for schools throughout Florida due to Covid-19.
The Indian Harbor Police Department conducted a thorough investigation, and their 39-page police report contradicted Steel’s story. They concluded that there was no evidence of child abuse whatsoever. Steel provided the photos to law enforcement and stated that they were taken when Sofia got off the bus the day that they discovered her wearing the mask. Steel told police that his wife took the mask off Sofia and called him, then she put the mask back on to take the photos. Except that was a lie. The metadata in the photos showed that they were actually taken days later.
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Not only that, but when investigators reviewed video footage from the school and school bus, they say Sofia showed no signs of distress, physically or emotionally, and was playing and behaving just as any other kid would. They also noted that she was wearing different clothing in the videos compared to the photos Steel provided.
“As witnessed by multiple teachers, school aides, bus drivers, and school administration staff, at no time, while having the mask tied on, did (Sofia) ever exhibit any signs of distress, discomfort, difficulty breathing, or any other health concerns,” the investigators wrote in their report.
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Video evidence showed that the girl actually seemed to prefer wearing her mask, and her only outburst came during a time when she was forced to not wear a mask.
“On at least one occasion, Sofia was observed on video placing the mask on herself; on another, her teacher told police, she ’threw a temper tantrum’ when she was not allowed to wear her mask,” police wrote.
Jeffrey Steel claimed that the teachers at Ocean Breeze Elementary School abused Sofia. He stated that tying the mask behind her head to help keep it from falling off was abuse. Law enforcement and the Federal courts disagreed.
The teachers were actually following the guidelines of Down Syndrome Resource Foundation on ways to accommodate children with Down Syndrome whose ears are often affected from their condition, and traditional masks are difficult to secure around the ears as designed.
Although masks were mandated at the time of this incident, parents had an option to opt out under certain parameters. The Steels never did so.
Jeffrey Steel soon teamed up with State Representative Randy Fine and Moms for Liberty, and began a political charade of false claims and outrageous demands. Steel went as far as to hire a publicist who landed him on national media outlets like Fox News’ Tucker Carlson promoting his GiveSendGo fundraiser seeking $200,000 for “Justice for Sofia.”
After the media blitz, Steel was able to rack up nearly $105,000 in donations from people around the nation that fell for his false claims in the name of his step daughter. It should be noted that Jeffrey Steel had no legal rights whatsoever to Sofia, and was not even her legal guardian as was argued in the lawsuit. He wouldn’t legally even be able to give the consent he says was never provided.
Representative Fine’s inflammatory post shown above mentions that Jenkins was on MSNBC. She was on several national media outlets discussing the abuse, death threats, and endless harassment she suffered as a result of the false claims of both Steel and Fine, and many others as a result, stating that SHE abused Sofia personally, she deserved to be in jail for it, and that there was a “special place in hell” for her. Fine not only stated these absurdities on his social media accounts and at press conferences, but even from committee meetings and from the floor of the Florida House of Representatives.
“This is already criminal. I…plan to introduce legislation to increase the penalty,” Fine told Fox News. “…We’re going to be having a special session in Tallahassee, and I expect that we’ll pass a law in Sofia’s honor that puts people like Brevard school board members who did this to Sofia in prison for a very long time.”
Fine’s threats and false accusations were soon propagated by other elected officials around Florida, increasing the intensity and severity of the harassment and abuse Jenkins would endure. It even lead to someone anonymously calling in a fake DCF claim alleging Jenkins was abusing her own daughter. That investigation of who sent in the illegal claim is still ongoing.
State Attorney Phil Archer had to issue an official statement on the case because of the false statements being made by Fine and the Steels, and their attacks against the law enforcement officers who conducted the investigation.
“I want to commend Chief Butler and his investigative staff for a very thorough and professional investigation. After a careful review of the investigative reports, interviews, and evidence provided to our office, we agree with the conclusion reached by the Indian Harbor Beach Police that no criminal acts were committed.”
Archer went on to add, “This case is a text book example of what rushing to judgment prior to the conclusion of an investigation, can produce in today’s hypersensitive politically charged climate.
While concern for the well-being of any child subject to this type of allegation is understandable, the immediate character attacks circulated electronically targeting teachers, administrators, and support staff were not only disturbing, but have been shown to be completely without merit. As leaders and as a community, we must do better.”
But they didn’t do better; they did worse. Fine, Jeffrey Steel, and others continued parading Sofia around to political events like a prop. Fine himself used her at an event he spoke at for Senator Marco Rubio’s re-election campaign. Fine was also running for re-election at the time, and promoted the Steel’s fundraiser and Sofia on his campaign page almost daily.
The Steels filed their $100,000,000 lawsuit and amended it 3 times. After nearly each setback the received from the court, it was accompanied with a misleading or false post from Fine, and an “update” on Steels fundraiser account asking for more money from donors. But the jig was up. From the initial $105k raised at the beginning, to date, despite all the pleas, donors have only raised that balance just over $2,000 to a total of $107,527. The Steels recently skipped town, and moved to Daytona Beach.
Fine went as far as to push School Board Chair Matt Susin and newly elected members Gene Trent and Megan Wright to vote to not allow the School Board to defend Jenkins in the case. In exchange for Fine’s support during their campaigns, they had to promise to fire beloved Superintendent Mark Mullins at the first school board meeting, which they did.
The 60-page lawsuit (originally filed as 44 pages) covered 15 counts that the Steels were suing for.
Count I – Violation of Right of Privacy
Count II – Violation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
Count III – Violation of Title II of the Americans with Disabilites Act
Count IV – Violation of 42 U.S.C. 1983 (deprivation of civil rights and 14th Amendment due process) against the school
Count V – Violation of 42 U.S.C. 1983 against the individual defendants
Count VI – Negligence as Against the School Entities
Count VII – Negligent Hiring, Training, Retention, and/or Supervision as to School Entities
Count VIII – Violation of Rights Pursiant to Fla. Stat 393.13 (violation of rights of a developmentally disabled person)
Count IX – Violation of Plaintiffs’ Rights to Direct the Medical and Mental Health Decision-Making for their Child
Count X – Violation of the Parents’ Bill of Rights
Count XI – Violation of Fla. Stat. 1000.05 (Educaiton Equity Act)
Count XII – Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress
Count XIII – Battery Against Kristen Godden and Nichole Dougherty (school staff)
Count XIV – Fraudulent Concealment and Misrepresentation Against Kristen and Nichole
Count XV – Defamation Against Jennifer Jenkins
The judge made the following rulings:
In favor of Godden and Dougherty and against Plaintiffs on Count XI and Count XIV; Count IX as to Shirley Bezerra Steel’s claim; and Count XIII as to a finding that they did not have a deliberate intent to harm S.B.
In favor of the School Board and against Plaintiffs on Count II; Count III; Count IV; Count VI insofar as it seeks punitive damages; Count VII insofar as it alleges a negligent hiring, retention, and supervision claim; Count IX as to Shirley Bezerra Steel’s claim; and Count XI.
In favor of the School Board Members and against Plaintiffs on Count VIII; Count IX as to Shirley Bezerra Steel’s claim; and Count XI.
In favor of Jenkins and against Plaintiffs on Count XV as to Jeffrey Steel’s claim.
Plaintiffs’ remaining claims are DISMISSED without prejudice.
On May 15, Jeffrey Steel posted the latest update to his fundraiser. They certainly have the right to appeal the judge’s decision to a higher court. Steel even mentions the Supreme Court in his update. However, it ins’t likeley that they have the means to continue. He’s been constantly asking for more money from donors; donors are almost non-existent; and given the severe loss they just suffured on all counts, it’s highly unlikely that any lawyer would take their case on contingency, and the fees would be astronomical.
The School Board has not made an official comment on the matter, and the order is not available to the public. We expect to see a comment from Randy Fine consistent with his others claiming a coverup, injustice, child abuse, a reckoning is coming, special places, get ready, so on and so forth. His supporters and believers will continue to not face reality of the findings of law enforefement, and now federal court and still continue on with their rhetoric and harassment and using a child for thier own attention seeking. And Jeffrey Steel will likely ask for more money in the name of a child he has no legal rights to.
But in the real world, the teachers were not child abusers, but underpaid heroes in our community doing their best to educate and keep kids safe during unprecedented times. No evidence of any harm to Sofia was ever produced; at least not on behalf of the defendants in this case. Law enforcement took the claims seriously, investigated them thuroughly, and acted with integrity in their findings, even though the complainant admittedly did not. A judge in Federal Court looked at every piece of “evidence” they provided, heard every argument they could come up, and dismissed every bit of it.
In the mean time, Representative Fine is facing charges by the Floirda Commision on Ethics (with more pending), and both Fine and the Steels could be facing legal action themselves for their actions surrounding this case. One thing for sure is that Mr. Jeffrey certainly has the correct last name.