Protest on principle

Parent denounces charter school’s culture regarding childhood vaccination

Over Christmas break, Dave Kaplan pulled his 8-year-old daughter, Sayomi, out of Blue Oak Charter School, and now she’s finishing the second grade at Shasta Elementary.

His decision wasn’t based on the curriculum, teachers or his daughter’s classmates. Actually, Blue Oak’s overarching philosophy is why Kaplan and his wife chose the school for both Sayomi and Ella, 11, a sixth-grader still enrolled there.

“There’s a lot of holistic stuff they do—really cool stuff,” he said. “It’s a good place for children who are struggling in neighborhood schools and for kids with behavioral problems. They find ways through movement to focus their energy on something.”

Here’s the thing: Kaplan believes that many parents at Blue Oak subscribe to a culture that could have real consequences for his daughters’ health. It emerged leading up to Jan. 1, when Senate Bill 277, which eliminates personal belief exemptions for childhood vaccinations, partially went into effect. Under the law, only children who have received vaccinations for 10 diseases including whooping cough and measles—or those with medical exemptions—can enroll in public or private schools. Parents had until Dec. 31 to update their personal belief exemptions and be “grandfathered in.”

In the months prior to the deadline, Kaplan said, most information shared by Blue Oak and the parent council focused on turning in personal belief exemptions on time and loopholes in the law, rather than the public health benefits of vaccination. Most egregious in his eyes was an email sent by Blue Oak’s parent council. It linked to an article by celebrity pediatrician Robert “Dr. Bob” Sears, a vocal critic of SB 277, which provided an exhaustive list of ways parents can sidestep the vaccination requirements.

To Kaplan, the email was biased and indicative of “some sort of counterculture thing in which misinformation is being passed around. … By linking that document, they showed their hand on how they feel about vaccination,” he said.

He was even more concerned with the possibility that the message was condoned by the school’s administration, which also sent out numerous reminders of the changes in the law and the impending deadline. The first option offered to parents: “Continue in school without vaccines ….” Option 3 was to get up-to-date with all vaccinations.

Herd immunity is achieved when a large enough portion of a population, at least 90 percent, has been vaccinated so that disease can’t spread.

At most schools in Chico Unified School District, relatively few parents filed personal belief exemptions for children in the 2015-16 kindergarten class, according to data compiled by the California Department of Public Health. The most extreme outlier is Blue Oak, where 27 of 62 kindergarteners, or 44 percent of the class, were unvaccinated at the beginning of the school year.

Eric Snedeker, director of special education and student services for CUSD, offered an analysis of those statistics.

“Charter schools typically have a different philosophical approach to learning,” he said.“Those parents congregate around more of an open-structure format. I think their health decisions follow that same line of thinking.”

The state’s intent with SB 277 is protecting the greatest number of people from disease, said CUSD Superintendent Kelly Staley, but she recognizes that not all parents consider it a benefit to public health.

“If an outbreak were to occur, I’m sure we’d have some very concerned parents,” she said. “But I know some parents believe that vaccination is just as risky or damaging to health as an outbreak.”

Kaplan was first turned off during a registration and parents’ orientation event in August. At the school’s front entrance, a couple of parents were gathering signatures to repeal SB 277 by ballot measure.

“As they’re entering the school, this is the gauntlet people have to run,” Kaplan said. “For the school to allow that was kind of offensive to me.”

Kaplan attempted to find out whether the activity was school-sanctioned by emailing both the Blue Oak Charter Council and Nathan Rose, the school’s executive director and superintendent. He didn’t get an answer. (Rose told the CN&R that he did not receive the message.)

Then, at the beginning of December, the Kaplans received an email from Melissa Lindaman, chair of the parent council. It linked to the article by Dr. Sears and encouraged parents to “get your personal belief exemptions submitted to the school before December 18, 2015,” the last day of school before the Dec. 31 deadline. The parent council did not review the content of her message, Lindaman said in an email to the CN&R. She explained that Sears provided “simplified information about how all parents, regardless of the vaccination status of their children, could ensure that they were in compliance with the law.”

After that, Kaplan decided to quietly pull Sayomi out of school. It was a matter of principle.

“If rational thinkers aren’t going to stand up to irrational thinkers … irrational thinkers take over,” Kaplan said. “I don’t want to live in that society. It’s a gesture—taking a stance without making a stink.”

It still was a tough decision. Students stay with the same class through all grade levels at Blue Oak, and Sayomi loved her classmates. Kaplan’s older daughter, Ella, was even more invested in her class. “They’re basically siblings at this point,” he said. So, he kept her in class, though he is still concerned with the possibility of an outbreak.

Rose told the CN&R that emails from the parent council aren’t run by administration and therefore aren’t official correspondence from the school. He likened the council to a parent-teacher association.

“They can come together as a group of people and say, ‘We’re going to do cookie dough sales instead of popcorn sales.’ That’s up to them. They are a voting body that, yes, is associated with the school, but they do not have any power to control or wield policy. That’s the bottom line.”

Similarly, he said parents have the right to gather signatures on school grounds and their cause does not reflect the school’s official stance. Rose then rejected the notion that the parent culture at Blue Oak fosters anti-vaccination sentiment.

“I can’t speak to why each individual family chooses or doesn’t choose vaccination,” he said. “If the Kaplans feel like they want vaccinations, that’s on the Kaplans. It’s not a cultural thing. It’s an individual family thing.”