By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
The parents of more than 2,300 Prince George's County students who failed to get needed vaccinations could face fines of $50 a day and up to 10 days in jail if their children do not meet the state's immunization requirements, county officials said yesterday.
The threat of legal action is a last resort after months in which Prince George's has struggled to get its 131,000 students immunized for chicken pox and hepatitis B, as mandated by the state. More than 2,300 students have not been immunized and have been barred from attending schools, almost two months after a Sept. 20 deadline for meeting the requirement.
"We can do this the easy way or the hard way, but it's got to get done," Prince George's State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey (D) said at a news conference in Upper Marlboro. "I'm willing to move forward with legal action."
School officials have made calls, sent letters and conducted home visits to make arrangements for free appointments for the needed shots. But often the students' addresses and phone numbers have been outdated, making contacting them difficult. Other students have received the vaccines but failed to get the necessary booster shots.
The school system turned to the justice system as a final option and received the backing of Circuit Judge William D. Missouri, the county's administrative judge, and Circuit Judge C. Philip Nichols Jr., who handles juvenile matters.
"This is an educational crisis," said R. Owen Johnson Jr., chairman of the school board. "This is a public health and a children's rights issue."
Nichols and Ivey sent another round of letters to the families still out of compliance. Nichols's letter ordered the parents to show up at Prince George's Circuit Court for a court hearing and a free vaccine; Ivey's letter warned that "unexcused absences by your child may subject you to a criminal charge."
They expect almost 1,700 children to show up Saturday with their parents for the first in a series of Circuit Court hearings on the matter. School officials said the parents would receive a verbal reprimand from the judge and be ordered to have their children immunized in the courthouse. The students would then be allowed to return to school.
Parents who do not appear could face fines of $50 for each day they fail to get their children immunized after being charged. They also could serve up to 10 days in jail. Ivey said he hoped charging parents would not be necessary.
"The goal is to get kids in school, not to put parents in jail," Ivey said.
Missouri said he looked forward to talking to the parents who had not gotten their children immunized, to understand why.
"I'd like to know exactly what the reasons are because the reasons may be able to be addressed without ratcheting it up to this point," he said.
Schools officials said they were sorry the crisis had gone this far, but that it needed to be solved immediately.
"This has really, really been a difficult time for us," said Betty Despenza-Green, the school system's chief of student services. "It hurts us when any child is out of school because he needs to be immunized, and so we felt we needed to be creative. We need those students immunized. We need them in schools."