By STEPHEN MANNING
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Two months into the school year, more than 2,000 students in Upper Marlboro, Md., this suburban county outside the nation's capital, had yet to get the shots they needed to attend class. So the school system decided it was through playing nice.
Parents in Prince George's County were ordered to appear at a special court hearing where they were given a choice: Get their children vaccinated on the spot or risk up to 10 days in jail and fines.
It is one of the strongest efforts made by a U.S. school system to ensure its youngsters receive their shots.
Prince George's County school officials and prosecutors said parents have been duly warned about the need for vaccinations over the past year. They said the goal isn't to throw parents in jail but to protect public health and to get kids who have been barred from school back to class.
“How can you in good conscience allow your child to miss school and their education for no particular reason?” said John White, spokesman for the 132,000-student school system.
At the courthouse, the health department had a makeshift clinic to administer vaccines. Parents were given the chance to offer the judge an excuse for why they didn't get their kids vaccinated. Under Maryland law, parents can obtain exemptions for
religious or medical reasons.
Those who failed to show up — and those who failed to offer a valid excuse and still refuse the shots — could be prosecuted under truancy laws and face possible jail time and fines of $50 per day. Prosecutors did not actually charge anyone.
“The message is get your kids vaccinated or get an exemption,” said Prince George's County State's Attorney Glenn Ivey. “You can't just sit on the fence.”
Barbara Loe Fisher, head of National Vaccine Information Center, a vaccine skeptic group, complained: “It is terrorizing parents. When you have the threat of going to jail, it is hard to make an informed decision.”
Even the judge who opened his court was somewhat skeptical about hauling parents into court.
William Missouri, administrative judge for the county circuit court, agreed to the session and said it would prod some parents to comply. But the problem “may have been ratcheted up to a level it should not have been at this time.”
School officials said that it is not clear why parents are not complying, but that some may have religious or medical objections, while others may have failed to turn in the paperwork, or their kids' addresses were outdated.
The prospect of stiff penalties appears to have worked already. Last week, when the court notices were sent to parents, 2,300 students had not been properly immunized. But a day before the court session, only about 1,100 remained on the list.
Maryland, like all states, requires children to be immunized against several childhood illnesses, including polio, mumps and measles. In recent years, it has required that students up to high-school age be vaccinated against hepatitis B and chicken pox.
After that, thousands of students — most of them high schoolers — were found to lack the required immunizations. Parents were sent letters and visited at home, and the school system even offered free vaccinations.
“Once the word gets out, it will definitely work,” Bob Ross, head of the parent-teachers association at Surrattsville High School in Clinton, said of the new get-tough approach. “Parents are going to have to set aside some time. Parents have a responsibility to help protect the public health.”