- The Washington Times - Friday, October 4, 2002

City school officials will deliver to D.C. Superior Court by noon today 73 truancy reports on parents who have not had their children immunized for school.

The judges will decide whether to file truancy or neglect charges against those parents or guardians whose children have been barred from school because they have not been immunized, said Ralph H. Neal, assistant superintendent of Student and School Support Services.

If convicted of truancy or neglect under the Compulsory School Attendance Law, parents could face a fine of not less than $100 and a jail sentence of not less than five days, Mr. Neal said. It was not clear whether penalties accrue on a daily basis.

The Washington Times first reported last month that city school officials were beginning to pursue legal action against delinquent parents.

As many as 73 public school students have been barred from classes since the school year began Sept. 3 because they have not been immunized or produced up-to-date immunization records, school officials said. Each truancy report represents a student who has not complied with immunization regulations.

Last month, principals began sending truancy court referral forms home to parents who have not complied.

"School officials have been reviewing truancy reports making sure that all the pieces fit together," said Mr. Neal, whose office oversees the immunization program.

He said administrators have scrutinized the truancy reports and those with discrepancies were returned to the schools for further review and clarification.

School officials said most of the students who had not complied were senior high school students.

All elementary school students and most middle/junior high school students have received up-to-date immunization shots, officials said.

Last year, the D.C. school board ruled that all students had to be immunized by Jan. 25 or they would not be permitted to attend classes.

Mr. Neal said letters were mailed to parents over the summer and last month alerting them that their children were not in compliance and would not be permitted to enroll in school. On Sept. 3 the first day of school in the District 6,600 children were not in compliance.

Students who had not received their shots were not allowed to attend class. Noncompliant students have been kept in specially designated areas until their parents pick them up from school. At that point, parents are directed to the nearest health clinic.

School board member Tommy Wells, who introduced the mandatory immunization resolution last year, said he was uncomfortable involving the courts.

"It's about immunizing the children, not about punishing them," Mr. Wells said after a school board public hearing Wednesday night. "A lot of students have been truant over the years, but it did not end in the courts."

If the courts must get involved, he said it would present an opportunity to determine whether there is a problem at home.

"The most important thing is to protect the children through immunization, not punish them. We've got to put most, if not all, of the responsibility on the parents. The city must see that it's a new day and everyone must be accountable," Mr. Wells said.

Since August, employees of the school system and the D.C. Department of Human Services, along with roving leaders from the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation, have been making home visits to find out why children have not been immunized. City workers have tried to help parents get their children immunized.

D.C. health officials working with the school system to complete the immunizations said they have come a long way since last year.

"We're tremendously ahead of where we were last year due to education. And education [about immunization] must be ongoing so that immunization become routine.," said Dr. Karyn Berry, chief of the Bureau of Communicable Disease Control in the Department of Health. "Diseases still exist, immunization not only protects the individual child, immunization protects the entire community."

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