San Dieguito district delays taking position on bill to end vaccine exemptions

( / U-T San Diego file photo)

The San Dieguito Union High School District board held off on throwing its “symbolic support” behind Senate Bill 277, which would eliminate the ability for parents to exempt their children from receiving immunizations based on “personal belief.”

The board decided not to take action on a resolution after concerns expressed by a number of parents at its March 19 meeting. A group of parents objecting to the board’s support of the bill came to the meeting at Carmel Valley Middle School holding signs that read “No 277.”

Eight parents spoke against the bill, including Canyon Crest Academy science teacher Ariel Haas and Carmel Valley resident Brian Stenzler, the president of the California Chiropractic Association, which has come out strongly against SB277.

“While vaccines serve a purpose, they do not come without a risk,” Stenzler said. “We can’t say if there’s a risk, there’s not a choice.”

Haas said taking away a parent’s right to make a choice would be a violation of religious freedom.

“To me it’s not about pro or anti-vaccinations, but about a parent’s choice to make a medical decision regarding their children,” Haas said.

After hearing from the parents, the board decided it would wait before supporting the bill, as many said they had not read it in its entirety.

“I’ve heard a lot that gives me pause when we consider this symbolic gesture,” said board member Amy Herman. “I’d be more comfortable waiting until we get more information.”

California is one of only 18 states that allows parents to enroll their children in school unvaccinated through the personal belief exemption.

According to the district’s report on the resolution, health officials believe an immunization rate of 95 percent is critical to minimizing a potential health risk of a disease outbreak. As use of the personal belief exemption has risen, so has the incidence of disease. A measles outbreak at Disneyland this year particularly heightened concerns.

In February, State Senators Dr. Richard Pan and Ben Allen introduced the bill, which prohibits children from attending any public elementary school or child care center unless they have been fully immunized against a list of 10 various diseases including measles, mumps, and pertussis. It also includes any other disease determined appropriate in the future.

The Solana Beach School District board approved a resolution supporting the bill in a 4-0 vote on March 12.

“What they’re proposing with this bill is that parents who have made a religious or philosophical decision not to vaccinate their children be forced to do something that is against their beliefs or else be truant or move out of the state or country,” parent Ann Austin said.

Austin said there is a misconception that exemptions mean that the student is not vaccinated — she said most delay or do selective vaccinations, such as opting not to do the hepatitis B vaccine for infants in their first year of life.

Austin and other parents said the bill will negatively affect families — students would be unable to attend schools in the district or participate in sports programs.

“Please do not support a bill that infringes on our ethics, on informed consent and our right as parents to choose what is best for our kids,” said Austin.

Many parents referred to the January 2014 implementation of the less restrictive Assembly Bill 2109, which requires parents who request immunization exemptions to obtain signed documentation from a health professional that they have been informed of the benefits and risks of immunizations.

Since that law took effect, 20 percent fewer parents have used the personal belief exemption.

“That bill is working; why are we trying to introduce another?” asked parent Karen Lun. “Let’s let AB2109 do its job.”

Many local parents take advantage of the vaccination opt-out. All of the district’s feeder school districts exceed the threshold established by the state of 2.5 percent for unvaccinated children.

The Del Mar Union School District has a total of 4,405 students in grades K-6, and about 3.8 percent, or 166 students, opted out based on personal beliefs. Seven out of the eight DMUSD schools exceed the state threshold.

At the Solana Beach district, 3.3 percent have personal belief waivers and four out of seven district schools exceed the state threshold.

The Rancho Santa Fe School District, which enrolls a total of 695 students, has 56 students — about 8 percent — who have opted out of vaccinations.

Encinitas Union has the highest vaccine refusal rate. For the district’s nine schools, the average was 11.6 percent last year. Olivenhain Pioneer had the highest rate of personal-belief exemptions in the district, with waivers for 19 out of 122 kindergartners, or about 16 percent.

Parents questioned why the legislation is directed at California schools when the outbreak originated not at schools, but at an amusement park. Parent Brian Austin said the outbreak was hardly so, infecting only 131 people in a state of 30 million.

Brian Austin expressed concerns about the where the bill is coming from, saying it “smells of corporate greed.” He said he was uncomfortable with corporations influencing public policy and wondered how the bill seeks to profit medical and pharmaceutical companies.

Student representatives on the board were given an opportunity to weigh in by trustee Mo Muir.

“On the one side, vaccinations can help all children stay safe and keep people from getting sick, and I think everyone should be vaccinated,” said Courtney Walsh from San Dieguito High School Academy. “But (the bill) is unconstitutional in a way and kids shouldn’t not be able to attend school because of their religious beliefs.”

Trustee John Salazar said that he believes in individual rights, but attending public school is a privilege, not a right; certain requirements must be followed in order to attend.