Hundreds of parents and their children descended on a suburban Maryland courtroom today to protest a judge's order requiring all children to be vaccinated in order to attend classes.
The protest culminates much-heated debate in Prince George's County, Md., about school immunizations.
Frustrated and fed-up county officials sent a letter to delinquent parents and ordered them to show up with their children in court today so standby nurses can vaccinate children. If parents refuse, the consequences are serious.
"Our goal is to get kids in school, not to put parents in jail," said Prince George's County state's attorney Glenn Ivey. "But if parents continue to be recalcitrant, they face up to 10 days in jail and a $50 a day fine."
Under Maryland state law, students who have religious reasons or a certified medical exemption will not be forced to be vaccinated, said Judge Phillip Nichols, who is overseeing the case, on "Good Morning America Weekend Edition" today.
School officials reached out to the judicial branch after they said too many students failed to get the required vaccinations to stay in school. District officials have tried everything from sending notices to parents to offering free-shot clinics in order to get the children immunized.
Nichols said he believes lack of knowledge is not the reason why they children have not received their shots.
"I think everybody does know about it. The problem is just getting it done," Nichols said.
The situation became so serious that at one point more than 2,300 students were barred from attending class because they didn't have the proper immunizations. The number has dwindled down to about 1,000, and shots for hepatitis B and chicken pox are the shots children lack the most. Those immunizations were added to the state's required list last year.
Some children already have been out of the classroom for a month and the fight is affecting students as young as kindergarteners. But it's mostly affected middle and high school pupils.
"This has really, really been a very difficult time for us," said Betty Despenza Green, Prince George's County chief of student services. "I think some of the students have found themselves in a predicament where they are just not able to get it done, or they believe that perhaps we will relinquish on it and some how it will go away."
One infectious disease expert defended the district's actions.
"They're grabbing the parents by the collars and saying, 'You must vaccinate your children,'" said Dr. William Schaffner of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
The district already has begun to see results since becoming stricter about the inoculations.
"Since the school board has came to us and asked us to help, half the children have come back [because they have gotten their vaccines]," Nichols said.
"This is your last chance before we really get tough," Nichols said. "You have to have these inoculations to go to school. We're serious."
Many parents seem firmly behind the get-tough policy.
"The kids need to have their shots," said Clint Carter, the parent of a high school sophomore. "Parents have known. They sent letters home, everybody knows. It's on the news. Get your child shots."
But other parents, even some whose kids are vaccinated, believe the measures are too extreme.
"What good are you going do if you lock up the parents?" asked Dierdre Young, who is the mother of a high school freshman and junior. "Then the parents can't feed them. They still can't come to school. They still don't have their shots. So what have you solved?"