Aidan Palicke was on his way to his fifth-grade AP language arts class when he was stopped by a school counselor.
The reason: Palicke, a junior at Yorba Linda High, wore a mesh face mask. School officials wanted something that would give him and others more protection.
“I’ve never been called to the office,” Palicke said. “I was confused and nervous because I was always trying to be the best student I could be.”
When offered a blue surgical mask, he declined. After phone calls with his parents and a meeting lasting more than an hour the next day, Palicke was told not to return to campus unless he had a more protective face covering, one without holes.
That was in January, when COVID cases and hospitalizations increased in Orange County and across the country. Palicke has not returned to campus since.
Last month, his father, Chris Palicke, filed a lawsuit in Orange County Superior Court, saying his son had been “specifically targeted” for wearing his mesh mask — the way he’s been wearing since the start of the pandemic. – and was forced into an online independent study program by the neighborhood.
The school’s actions are described in the lawsuit as “targeted harassment and discrimination,” which led to an “eviction” from the home study program.
The complaint was filed by Palicke and the Children’s Health Defense, California Chapter, a nonprofit organization founded by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. promoting an anti-vaccination agenda. The lawsuit names Yorba Linda High, the Placentia-Unified School District and several district and school officials, including six teachers.
Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified spokeswoman Alyssa Griffiths declined to comment on the lawsuit. She said no students have been expelled from the district for failing to comply with face mask rules. District officials were unable to determine how many students were transferred to the online program for non-compliance or if they were suspended for similar reasons.
During much of the pandemic, students and staff on school campuses across California had to cover their faces to protect themselves and others from COVID-19. That state mandate was lifted on March 12.
In an interview Monday, the elder Palicke said his son has been denied his constitutional right to education.
“We were compliant,” he said. “It wasn’t like he said, ‘I’m not going to wear a mask.'”
The lawsuit alleges that Aidan Palicke was identified as posing “an obvious and current danger” in retaliation for his parents’ vocal opposition to facemasks and other district policies.
Chris Palicke, like some others who oppose the use of face coverings, said it is unhealthy – even harmful – for children to wear a mask for extended periods of time. Aidan Palicke said he has trouble breathing and can’t concentrate on schoolwork if he wears regular masks.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, a well-fitting face covering is recommended to reduce transmission of the virus.
For nearly two years, Aidan wore his mesh mask along with many other students and even some staff members, according to Chris Palicke, who has photos of indoor school events that show many students wearing masks improperly or not being bothered by them at all.
A photo of an indoor basketball game at Yorba Linda High, showing a large group of students unmasked, was blown up and put on display by a school board member earlier this year. Some parents and some school board members have argued that the rules are being enforced unequally.
In a letter dated Jan. 14, Chief Inspector Jim Elsasser informed families and staff of the mask policy, writing “masks with holes and gauze masks are not acceptable.” That month, school board president Carrie Buck canceled two meetings because some in the audience were either wearing mesh masks or not wearing any masks at all. While the Centers for Disease Control and the California Department of Public Health recommend higher quality face masks such as N-95s and others, there are no specific guidelines for mesh masks.
Aidan Palicke said the experience influenced his education and his relationships with fellow students.
About two weeks after he was banned from returning to campus, he was allowed back to take final exams. But he said several teachers forced him to take the tests outside when the temperature was in the 40s and he didn’t bring a jacket.
“It was cold. It was awkward. All my peers looked at me. My fingers went numb with the cold,” he said. “I couldn’t concentrate.”
According to the lawsuit, the younger Palicke has been laughed at and mocked by other students — sometimes with the encouragement of teachers. As a result, he left the Yorba Linda High cross-country team, where he was captain, as well as the track team. And while he could have returned to campus without masks after the face mask requirement was lifted, Aidan and his father said too much has happened since then. They plan to look at other academic options next fall.
“I’d rather stay home and be alone than go back to a bunch of kids laughing at me,” Palicke said Monday.
The lawsuit alleges that school officials violated several education codes and constitutional rights while inflicting emotional distress. The lawsuit seeks, among other things, a court order prohibiting the district from suspending or removing students from personal instruction for failing to comply with the mask policy.
“We want to prevent schools from having unilateral mandates that harm and harm children,” Chris Palicke said.
Aidan Palicke, who turned 17 last month, said he wants to ensure that other students, especially young people, do not experience what he has done.
“I try to protect those kids who can’t protect themselves,” he said.