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School Administrator, February
A school district employee hears about several acquaintances who are refusing to vaccinate their school-age children, fearing supposedly harmful side effects. They mention getting faked doctors’ forms to enroll their children in their public schools. Does the district employee have a duty to report what he has heard to the respective school districts?
All states have enacted laws requiring specific vaccinations for school children. These laws are intended to achieve an immunity level that limits the outbreak and spread of serious, preventable diseases among community members. Often, the vaccination rates need to reach at least 92 percent of the school population to be effective in preventing the spread of contagious diseases.
However, the vast majority of states also allow exemptions for medical, religious or even philosophical reasons. The implication of an exemption is that when there is an outbreak, the unvaccinated child is more likely to be excluded from school for a period of time to protect both that child and other children who may be susceptible.
Therefore, it is likely that these parents do not need to engage in fraud in order to have their children exempted from vaccination. The first step the district employee should take is to inform the acquaintances that they can secure an exemption. If they choose to submit a fraudulent doctor's certification instead, the individual has both an ethical and legal responsibility to let the respective districts know.
The knowledge that a fraud is potentially being perpetrated on these districts makes the individual complicit with an illegal action if he or she doesn’t report it. The issue is not whether the legal requirement of vaccination is good or bad. Submitting a false certificate is a clear violation of the law.
However, there are also ethical implications. Not informing the district leaves children and staff in the district more vulnerable to the spread of contagious and preventable diseases. The district’s awareness of children who have been identified as unvaccinated enables the district to respond in a way that best protects all students and employees if and when an outbreak occurs.
Although the district employee may feel that reporting this illegal act to the respective school districts could compromise his or her relationship with the acquaintances, their willingness to engage in fraudulent actions that endanger other students should be an overriding ethical concern that moves him or her to take action.
Vaccination is an essential public health initiative that protects the health of both the vaccinated child herself and others who come into direct or indirect contact with her. As vaccinations against serious and even fatal infectious diseases became near-universal — in part thanks to requirements that children be up to date on vaccinations before enrolling in school — parents were blessedly able to forget the terrors that accompanied a child’s diphtheria, pertussis or polio diagnosis.
Unfortunately, this very success has led some parents to feel complacent and to discount the importance of vaccinating their children. When accompanied by misinformation about the (virtually non-existent) health risks of vaccines, these parents have chosen the route of the employee’s acquaintances and wrongly chosen not to vaccinate their children.
Vaccine refusers put many people at risk -- not only their own children, but also other children and families and the broader population. Immunocompromised, pregnant and elderly individuals may suffer from exposure to infections that normally cause only mild symptoms. As the number of vaccinated individuals in a population drops, “herd immunity” also is reduced, and diseases can become epidemic. The district employee is thus right to be concerned about families who are enrolling their children in schools using faked vaccination paperwork.
Nonetheless, the employee does not have a duty to report what he has heard to the school districts. First, although these families may be putting others’ health at risk, unfortunately they also could probably do so perfectly legally. As of 2016, 47 states permitted religious exemptions and 17 states allowed philosophical exemptions from vaccine requirements. For better or worse, we have decided as a country to allow parents to send unvaccinated children to public school for non-medical reasons.
Second, the employee should not be reporting rumors about families to district officials. The scenario suggests this is hearsay, which is definitely not what schools or districts need to be spending their time processing. Relatedly, there are all sorts of things that district employees may hear about parental or student malfeasance -- cheating on tests, sneaking alcohol into the prom, redshirting their child to gain athletic or academic advantage.
School district employees should not view their duties as encompassing these kinds of reports to officials, either. This is because, third and last, public employees serve the public through their contracted work, not by being the eyes and ears of the public. If the parents’ choices to fake vaccination records poses a true threat to public safety (or even to individual children’s safety), then anyone should feel duty-bound to report it. It doesn’t matter whether one is a public school district employee or not. If it does not rise to the level of publicly reportable, then the employee is also not bound to do so.
The school district employee has the duty to report to the respective districts regarding anyone attempting to circumvent the law regarding vaccination requirements. The law is in place to protect all children and must be enforced for the health of all.
In addition, this employee also may want to encourage the districts to launch a vigorous and dynamic education program to help all parents understand the supporting research and evidence regarding vaccinations and the need for the law.
The school district employee should talk to his supervisor and get guidance regarding what next steps to take. What are the applicable state policies, district policies or federal laws and reporting requirements? With whom does he share what he knows?
Although the information he heard was “off the clock,” what the acquaintances told him has implications for student safety. A measles outbreak at the children’s schools, while the schools are under the impression all students are safe from infection, would potentially put students at risk.
This is a moral dilemma for the employee who is being forced to choose between his friends and his obligations as a district employee who serves students. He is in possession of knowledge that could result in harm coming to students. Beyond his liability is his responsibility to kids in and out of school.
In wanting to solve one problem (by refusing to vaccinate their children), these parents have potentially created health problems for their own children and their schools.
draws on actual circumstances to raise an ethical decision-making dilemma in K-12 education. Our distinguished panelists provide their own resolutions to each dilemma. Do you have a suggestion for a dilemma to be considered? Send it to:
The Ethical Educator panel consists of
, superintendent, Andover, Mass.;
, a retired superintendent in Arlington Heights, Ill., and an AASA past president;
, professor of education, Harvard University, and author of
Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries
, interim superintendent, Eagle County, Colo.