Jail time for parents of unvaccinated kids?
Associated Press Writer
Vail, CO Colorado
UPPER MARLBORO, Md. ” The threat of jail time injected a little motivation into scores of parents who lined up around the courthouse Saturday to get their children vaccinated on the spot or prove they’ve already had the shots.
It was one of the strongest efforts yet by a U.S. school system to ensure that youngsters are immunized, upsetting some parents who grumbled that Prince George’s County officials went too far and irking opponents of mass vaccinations, who demonstrated outside.
Two months into the school year, officials in the suburban Washington county realized that more than 2,000 students still didn’t have the vaccinations required to attend class. So Circuit Court Judge C. Philip Nichols ordered parents in a letter to appear at the courthouse Saturday or risk as many as 10 days in jail.
“It was very intimidating,” said Territa Wooden of Largo. She said she presented the paperwork at the courthouse and resolved the matter.
By about 8:30 a.m., the line of parents stretched outside the courthouse in the county on the east side of Washington.
“I could be home asleep. My son had his shots,” said Veinell Dickens of Upper Marlboro, who said the school system had misplaced the records.
Aloma Martin of Fort Washington took her children, Delontay and Taron, in 10th and 6th grade, for their hepatitis shots. She said she had been trying to get the vaccinations for more than a month, since the school system sent a warning letter. She had an appointment for Monday, but came to the courthouse to be safe.
“It was very heavy handed,” she said of the county’s action. “From that letter, it sounded like they were going to start putting us in jail.”
School officials deemed the court action a success. School system spokesman John White said the number of children lacking vaccinations dropped from 2,300 at the time the judge sent the letter to about 1,100 Friday.
After Saturday’s session, 172 more students were in compliance, including 101 vaccinated at the courthouse and 71 whose records were updated.
Still, that left more than 900 students out of compliance, White said.
“Obviously, we still have some more work to do,” he said.
Officials said they did not know how many students got shots Saturday and how many merely had paperwork problems. It was also unclear how many claimed medical or religious exemptions to the requirement.
White said the school system, with about 132,000 students, has been trying for two years to get parents to comply with state law. That law allows children to skip vaccines if they have a medical or religious exemption.
Maryland, like all states, requires children to be immunized against several childhood illnesses including polio, mumps and measles. In recent years, it also has required that students up to high school age be vaccinated against hepatitis B and chicken pox.
The judge said that nobody actually came before him Saturday, but that he was there if any parent asked to see him.
Nichols noted the unhappy looks of some of the kids in line waiting for vaccinations.
“It’s cute. It looks like their parents are dragging them to church,” Nichols said.
Any children who still lack immunizations could be expelled. Their parents could then be brought up on truancy charges, which can result in a 10-day jail sentence for a first offense and 30 days for a second.