Tag Archives: ethics

Is your school ready for measles?

I was wondImage of sign at public school announcing measles outbreakering that, so I asked the school nurse what percentage of the students at our local high school were unvaccinated, and how many had non-medical exemptions. Here’s her response:

“We are unable to provide this information to you because it is in violation of the FERPA laws.”

FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) prohibits the release of any information that identifies students. For example, schools cannot release the names of students who are unvaccinated due to philosophical objections of parents. But an aggregate statistic like % unvaccinated does not identify the unvaccinated students, so FERPA is not a concern. Indeed, dozens of states put their vaccination statistics in searchable databases to make it easy for parents to see. And these databases don’t just show a % — the spreadsheet usually provides the numbers of students at each school with medical, religious, and personal exemptions. And for states that don’t publish these data on behalf of schools, parents can just contact their kids’ schools and ask for the information. Unfortunately, some schools use the FERPA card as a way to hide information that might generate criticism of the school’s readiness for, say, a measles outbreak. 

Here’s the thing: parents need to know this percentage. If measles were to come to a school next week, can parents still send their children into school? What if a student has a medical exemption — is the herd immunity strong (perhaps 96% vaccinated), or is it dismal (50%)? Only when the parents know these data can they assess whether the school is safe.

By the way, the school principal is ultimately responsible for granting vaccination exemptions to the parents who request them. For example, a principal can (and should) refuse medical exemptions if the reasoning is ignorant (“I don’t want my kid to get autism”). Similarly, religious and philosophical objections can be rejected if they are baseless or contrived. For example, a parent might write, “The Pope would be displeased if my kid was vaccinated”, and the principal is allowed to reject that claim because it’s demonstrably untrue. Low vaccination rates at a school, therefore, are not just a reflection of who lives in the area — they can reveal problems in how exemptions are granted.

To make it easier for parents, I have made a list, by state, on how to get school-based vaccination data. There are gaps, however. Some states have websites so poorly organized that I couldn’t find it (if you know it, send me the link, please). And some states I contacted said they don’t publish the data but said I could just contact schools directly. Finally, some states claim they cannot release the data due to privacy concerns. FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) clearly prevents a school from releasing the names of the kids who are non-vaccinated (for example), but it does not prevent schools from sharing the overall vaccination rate. States and schools citing FERPA just need to be educated about this, which is partly why I’m compiling this list (parents can share it with school officials who didn’t get the memo).

If the links below don’t work, try asking your school principal for the data. (Don’t ask the school nurse, because s/he’ll will instinctively cite FERPA.) When you get your data, please share it with other parents in your community via Facebook or Nextdoor. Only communities that know their vaccination coverage can determine whether they are prepared for disease outbreaks. If your school has rates below 96%, parents need to formally request to school board and principals that fewer exemptions be granted. Yes, the principal can deny requests if they are unwarranted.

Alabama (I could only find county data)
Alaska (I can’t find anything; maybe too cold for viruses?)

Kentucky (county data)
Maine (have to ask your school nurse)
Montana (county data)

Nebraska (need to ask your school, Health Dept said HIPPA prevents schools from releasing data)
Nevada (they are working on this right now; until then, ask school)
New Hampshire
New Jersey
New Mexico (ask State Dept of Education)
New York
North Carolina
North Dakota
Pennsylvania (county data in PDF near bottom)

Rhode Island
South Carolina (see PDF at bottom of page)
South Dakota
Tennessee (partial county data)
Texas (district data)
Utah (district data; ask school, and if they balk, contact this person for help)
West Virginia (ask this person for PDF)
Wisconsin (district data; county)


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The Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research, Inc.

This post is about a non-profit that calls itself the The Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research, Inc. (www.cpbr.org). It promotes biotech research, and, apparently, has low regard for intellectual property. Or at least for my intellectual property. Read on if you’re interested.

So I have this little page on designing scientific posters, and it’s had maybe 2 million hits in its lifetime. I published it on the internet to help people around the world design a poster for a meeting, and in return I occasionally receive emails, funny postcards, and even baked goods as thanks. It’s a fun page to maintain and keeps me off the streets. And sometimes people hire me to give seminars on poster design, which is fun, too. And I’ve had a book offer, which impressed my mom.

Of course, the page is on the internet so people plagiarize me. When I stumble onto them, I ask the page owner to remove the text. I have “Copyright Colin Purrington” on all my pages, plus verbiage asking people to not steal my stuff, so most plagiarizers comply pretty quickly.

Still, some drag their feet a bit when I issue take-down requests. Some say, “But I rather like your content on my site, and I’d prefer to keep it without attribution.” Another favorite is, “But I’m a teacher and plagiarizing is protected under Fair Use!” (I’m not making this up.) These instances are really annoying, of course, but thankfully rare.

But this week I got the ultimate response, from The Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research, Inc. in Georgia (I’ll paraphrase): “No, we won’t comply…and instead we will accuse you of plagiarizing us.” In case you don’t know about CPBR, it is an entity that receives millions of dollars each year from the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Then it gives the money to worthy researchers in the form of grants. Part of the granting process involves applicants making posters and presenting them in D.C., hence their need for a section in their application document for how to craft an effective scientific poster — if you happen to have a copy, it’s Appendix 5. The 2 1/2 pages of tips in that section might seem oddly familiar if you’ve ever been on my site (approximately 90-95% similarity…and trust me, it’s not by chance). You won’t be able to easily find a copy of the document on the internet because they have, in red, at the top “Do not post on the internet.” But there are copies on the internet if you look carefully, and I did.

The CPBR’s response wasn’t just an email, either, it was massive package from a fancy lawyer in a fancy suit at a fancy law firm (Arnold and Porter) demanding I take down my page, forever, or face accruing $150,000 in damages plus litigation fees. It probably cost $5,000 just to craft that document. The lawyer’s suit cost probably cost even more.

Anyway, if you have any thoughts on how I should respond to this, please send me an email via the Contact button.

Personally, I’d like (1) a check from them that fully covers my legal costs, (2) a written apology from the CEO that is posted on their home page for 1 year, (3) a message emailed to all past proposal applicants and research directors stating that Appendix 5 was plagiarized from my site, and (4) an all-expense paid trip to St Simons Island, Georgia for me and my family, to compensate us for the pain and suffering that their bullying has caused. And about that last one — we better end up having a damn good time on St Simons Island. No poison in the soup, or anything like that! Or maybe (5) $150,000 in damages, for each of the years that they infringed upon my copyright?? Oh, and (6) it goes without saying that they can never, ever use my material in the future…so if you are on their mailing list and get the next announcement, please send me a copy if you see my text in Appendix 5 again (I’ll send you cookies if you’re the first!). Finally, (8) I think it would be good to have the plagiarizer fired — that amount of plagiarizing in college would get you expelled for a semester, and is equally inexcusable in the private sector…there should be consequences.

Please share this post with others so that The Consortium of Plant Biotechnology Research (Inc) gets all the press they truly deserve. If you are a reporter and are interested in even more details, contact me, maybe?

Screen shot of The Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research, Inc.
Screen shot of The Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research, Inc. Dorin Schumacher is the CEO.

By the way, if you’re bored and happen to have a copy of the document, I encourage you to search for the phrase, “intellectual property.” In the most recent version of the document, it’s present 28 times. I think that’s hilarious. Intellectual property is important because many of the proposals funded by CPBR relate to highly secret biotech projects involving member companies (Monsanto, Dupont, etc.). The irony here is too strong to spell out fully. The screen would just crack.

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