After an uncertain start to the school year, Sara Walton Brady’s 5-year-old son is enrolled in kindergarten. But not in the school that at first turned him down.
She tried to enroll him at Ustick Elementary School, but the West Ada School District denied him. She and the district had conflicting interpretations of an Idaho law that allows exemptions to state immunization requirements.
Idaho allows parents or guardians to exempt a child from immunization based on “religious or other grounds.” An increasing number of Idaho families are making that decision.
Brady claimed the exemption. The law says parents must sign a statement stating their objections. West Ada said its exemption form provides such a statement. But Brady wanted to write her own, so she did — on a copy of the Idaho immunization statute — and submitted it in April.
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A few days before school was to start, the school asked Brady to fill out the exemption form.
Brady objected. Besides the form’s canned religious exemption statement, two portions of it bothered her. She said it asks for information not required by law. One asks parents to check boxes for specific “vaccine-preventable diseases” for which immunization exemptions are claimed. The other asks parents to agree that a school can exclude an unvaccinated child in the event of a disease outbreak. Neither answer is required by the immunization exemption law.
Brady believes she followed the law. But school officials told her that without the form, her son could not start school.
Now, though, the school district has changed its mind. On Friday, Sept. 1, Brady received an email from the district reversing its initial decision.
The silence of the forms
West Ada spokesman Eric Exline said the district’s lawyer decided that Idaho’s Parental Rights in Education Law gives people like Brady the ability to submit an exemption without the state’s form. The law includes a requirement that districts allow children to be withdrawn from activities that impair parents’ “firmly held beliefs.”
“Based on that opinion, we changed our practice,” Exline said. “In this case, it had to do with a statute that’s not directly in immunization law or administrative code.”
The majority of medical experts consider vaccinations safe and vital for public health. but some opponents say vaccinations put children’s health at risk. Some parents believe that children can handle most infections naturally and that vaccines can have dangerous, even fatal, side effects.
All states require vaccinations for children beginning public school, though most allow exemptions. One in 15 Idaho kindergarteners, or 6.5 percent, had exemptions in 2014-15, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control — a higher percentage than any other state.
In some schools, the rate is much higher. One in 10 Ustick Elementary students had exemptions last school year, according to the Health and Welfare Department. At Anser Charter School in Garden City, one in six did. At The Ambrose School, a Christian school in Meridian, 25 percent of students had exemptions. You can check your child’s school by searching “2016-17 Idaho School Immunization Report” on the department’s website.
Idaho has some of the highest exemption rates in the nation, said Niki Forbing-Orr, a spokeswoman for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. Results are difficult to compare though, because different states have different immunization requirements and use different methodologies in their record keeping.
“Also, an exemption on file does not mean a child has no immunizations. Almost all children have some immunizations, but some are missing one, which means they have an exemption,” she said.
Exline said the exemption form has not caused problems in the past. Most families that ask fill it out without objections.
Forbing-Orr said the district was complying with the department’s administrative code, which says schools must keep records of a student’s immunization exemption “on a form provided by the department.” That’s so schools know which students might be in danger in the event of an outbreak — of mumps, rubella, whooping cough, or any other “vaccine-preventable diseases” the form lists.
The same code says parents may write their own statement on the form explaining their objections to immunization. The one-page form itself does not say that, and no space is provided. But Forbing-Orr said a parent or guardian is welcome to write on the back.
In the future, Exline said, parents still will be asked to fill out the form, “but if someone objects, I expect we’ll ask them to write out their objections and take that.”
Brady to West Ada: Apologize
Brady has chosen, for now, not to return to Ustick Elementary, because of the family’s initial encounter. She placed her child in a private school. To protect him, she declined to name him or the school.
She has asked the district for a public apology.
“If you made a mistake, you should take the proper steps to correct it,” she told the Idaho Statesman.
Health Freedom Idaho, a local group that advocates for choice regarding medical issues, has championed Brady’s cause. Brady was familiar with the group, having worked as volunteer on parental rights issues in the past.
Health Freedom Idaho “is not an anti-vaccination group,” though some members hold those beliefs, said Director Miste Karlfeldt. The group’s website contains posts such as “You’ll Be Shocked at What the Flu Shot is Really Doing to You!” and stories about the dangers of plastic products, using natural oils to keep spiders away and more.
“We are about parental rights and health freedom and families making their own choices,” Karlfeldt said.
Next step: the Legislature?
During Idaho’s 2017 legislative session, Health Freedom Idaho advocated a bill that would give parents the right to write their own letters about their objections to vaccinating their children and not require them to do so on a form. The bill did not receive a hearing in the Senate. Karlfeldt said the group may propose a similar bill during the 2018 session.
Karlfeldt sees the school district’s decision to allow Brady’s son to enroll as a victory.
“I am so proud of Sara for standing her ground for her parental rights,” she said. “... I hope that more parents will be inspired to stand their ground as well and not be bullied into signing a form that is not in line with their beliefs.”