District parents and guardians who failed to prove that their children had been properly immunized this school year got more than a summons to the principal's office: They were ordered to appear in court.
D.C. public school officials referred the names of all parents who they alleged had failed to obtain or document the required shots by Oct. 15 to the District's Office of the Attorney General. Prosecutors filed criminal charges against 41 parents and guardians, leading to hearings yesterday in D.C. Superior Court.
Throughout the morning and afternoon inside Judge Robert E. Morin's courtroom, the adults stood nervously before the bench alongside their court-appointed attorneys and entered pleas of guilty or not guilty.
"This is something new to me," said Tina Smith, 32, who added that she did not know that her daughter, a freshman at Anacostia Senior High School, needed a tuberculosis shot. "I just wish it'd be over with."
The charges were part of a recent push by schools, courts and health officials to compel parents and guardians to get their children immunized and to cut down on truancy. Students who have not received their shots or booster doses against tetanus, chickenpox, hepatitis B and other diseases are prohibited from attending school.
The 41 parents and guardians were charged with violations of the Compulsory School Attendance Act.
Under the 1990 law, parents who fail to make sure that their children attend school regularly can be fined as much as $100 and jailed for up to five days for each offense.
After their hearings, some parents took their children to a third-floor conference room inside the Superior Court building, where the Department of Health set up an immunization station. About 10 students received shots there, officials said.
Several parents complained that they had, in fact, gotten their children properly immunized, and they blamed the school system for losing or mishandling the records.
"I know there are neglectful parents, but I'm not one of them," said Daniel Logan, 41, who said his 15-year-old son, a student at Coolidge Senior High School, was immunized.
Michael Taylor and his wife, Matilda, said their 18-year-old son, a senior at Coolidge, also had obtained the necessary shots. They said the school mishandled the records. "They should have had their records up-to-date," Matilda Taylor said.
Ralph Neal, assistant superintendent for student and school support services, said that school officials "stand behind the fact that parents had not come forward to present their information to the school so that the school nurse could clear them."
Some parents said they were rattled by the experience of appearing before a judge under the threat of fines and jail time. After their names and cases were called, the parents and guardians stood next to their attorneys and listened quietly while a clerk told them: "You have the right to remain silent, and you have the right to an attorney."
"It was humiliating," Susaron Simms said after her hearing. Simms said she received a notice to come to court after she had gotten her 16-year-old son, a sophomore at Spingarn Senior High, immunized. "It's really not fair to all the parents, because all parents are not alike," she said.
Of the 41 parents and guardians ordered to appear in Family Court, 34 showed.
Assistant Attorney General Rachele Gaines said authorities would obtain warrants to arrest those who failed to appear. By the end of the day, about three bench warrants were issued against missing parents or guardians; the others had their hearings rescheduled.
"This is not about being vindictive," Gaines said. "The onus is on the parent to take responsibility and do what they need to do in order to make sure their child is enrolled and attending school."
Last school year, city prosecutors filed 98 cases against parents for a range of violations under the school attendance law.
The office offers eligible parents enrollment in a deferred sentencing program to avoid jail time. Of last school year's 98 cases, two parents were sentenced to three days in jail after failing the program.