Skipping class over shots? Officials seek use of truancy laws in vaccine effort; Schools bar students; Options sought in move to force parents' compliance


Baltimore health officials expect to learn today whether they can use truancy laws to pursue parents who let their children miss school rather than obtain state-required immunizations.

The city solicitor's office is investigating the options available to the health department and schools, which in some cases have met resistance to their campaign to safeguard students' health, said Health Commissioner Peter Beilenson.

He is working with the school system to determine whether there are children who have been absent for long who are using the shots as an excuse. Yesterday, some schools continued to have trouble obtaining permission from some parents to give students required vaccinations, he said.

"Most principals are doing everything they can: They've sent attendance workers out to the homes, they have had help from PTAs, they have excluded the children who don't have their shots," Dr. Beilenson said.

His tough stance is not motivated by any immediate health crisis, he and other health officials said. No significant outbreak of communicable diseases has occurred since 1990, when Baltimore had 530 cases of mumps; last year there were eight cases.

But it is worthwhile because large numbers of unvaccinated children create unnecessary risk, said Deborah Somerville of the school health services office in the state Department of Education.

Baltimore schools still must collect proof of immunization for about 9,700 students. Most of those students missed a deadline Tuesday to obtain shots and were barred from classes yesterday. About 1,100 of them had missed a Sept. 6 deadline and had been previously barred.

Confounding the health campaign is a huge job of managing the records: There is a backlog of cases waiting to be recorded in the computer. This results in conflicting progress reports and in instances of students mistakenly identified as needing shots.

"Half of the problem is record-keeping," said Dr. Beilenson. The first group of 40,000 children needing shots was identified in February, and was whittled nearly in half simply by pressing schools to type information they held into the school system's computer, he said.

The computer listed 95 students from the first group still lacking shots at Charles Carroll of Carrollton, which has pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. Some of those students have transferred or moved, said principal Harold Eason. When school started, his initial list of students needing shots was cut in half by verifying records.

"I just needed to get over to Hopkins [Hospital] and get a copy of Marina's records," said Wanda Johnson, whose 3-year-old daughter was briefly barred from Charles Carroll yesterday. At 11 a.m., her records verified, Marina was finally allowed back in class.

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