UPPER MARLBORO, Md. — Two months into the school year, more than 2,000 students in 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 have been ordered to appear at a special court hearing today where they will be 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 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 will have a makeshift clinic to administer vaccines. Parents will be 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 fail to show up — and those who fail 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 do not expect to actually charge anyone on Saturday.
“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.”
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. As of Friday afternoon, 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.