A couple with a 7-year-old son is suing to block the release of statewide data that highlights what percentage of children at each Connecticut school are unvaccinated, citing a flood of recent harassing comments made against anti-vaccine parents.
The state Department of Public Health, named as a defendant in the case, in May released the first school-by-school assessment of child immunization rates. The data from the 2017-18 year show 102 schools where fewer than 95 percent of kindergarten students were vaccinated for measles, mumps and rubella – the threshold recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The release of the data sparked outrage among politicians and an aggressive, last-minute push to repeal the state’s religious exemption to vaccines. Lawmakers ultimately agreed to shelve the issue until next year.
Legislative leaders said last month that they were awaiting the 2018-19 school year data, expected to be released by DPH sometime in June.
The health department would not say Monday whether it still plans to make public the latest school-by-school information. A spokesman said the matter was “under consideration,” and declined further comment.
Kristen and Brian Festa, whose son attends Meliora Academy in Meriden, have asked the court to issue an injunction halting the distribution of new data and are seeking the removal of the 2017-18 figures, which are posted on the DPH website.
The 2017-18 data “publicly exposed” Meliora Academy “as a school with one of the highest rates of exemption usage,” the Festas wrote in the lawsuit, making its students and parents the “potential targets of harassment.”
They pointed to a proliferation of “hateful and vitriolic statements” that appeared on the Internet against unvaccinated students and their parents.
“For instance,” they wrote, “one Facebook user made the post, ‘If my kid can’t bring peanut butter to school then yours can’t bring the deathly plague. Vaccinate or I’m bringing Jiffy.’”
Another, the Festas noted, put on the social media site: “So you are an antivaxxer? You should probably move to a private island if you don’t like the U.S. We would all be happy with that, especially if you are a scumbag antivaxxer. Ignorant trash like you are why we have a measles epidemic reoccurrence.”
The Festas said they had not directly been harassed or threatened, but because their son’s school had one of the highest exemption rates, he and his classmates “may become the targets of hate speech and other harassment.”
Kristen Festa testified at a public hearing last month that her son became immunosuppressed as the result of a flu shot, which changed her beliefs about vaccinations.
“My religion dictates that it is my primary duty in life to protect my children, specifically, parents have the most grave obligation and the primary right to do all in their power to ensure their children’s physical, social, moral, and religious upbringing,” she said. “After watching my son’s health be stolen from him by the most pointless of vaccines, there is no way I could stand before God and agree to inflict further harm.”
At Meliora Academy, a private, special education school, 18.5 percent of students claimed the religious exemption in 2017-18. Though higher than many other institutions, Meliora did not have the largest exemption rate that year.
Data show Housatonic Valley Waldorf School, a private school in Newtown, came out on top, with 37.7 percent of students reporting religious exemptions.
Amid a national measles outbreak this year, lawmakers sought to wipe out Connecticut’s religious waivers. They organized a public hearing in May, which drew hundreds of concerned parents who testified against the proposal. But with the legislative session ending on June 5, lawmakers decided to postpone the effort until 2020.
The proposal would not have forced children to be immunized. It would have prohibited unvaccinated children from attending Connecticut’s public schools.
House Majority Leader Matthew Ritter, a key proponent of the push to curtail Connecticut’s religious waivers, said Monday that he didn’t believe the lawsuit would stop the release of the 2018-19 data.
“I don’t think the lawsuit has much merit,” he said. “Whether or not they release it – I don’t know if they will – we will certainly appeal to them to release it.”
The case against DPH is pending. The next hearing, on a motion for continuance, is scheduled for July 15.