Here’s a photograph I took several years ago at the National Zoo’s “Think Tank” exhibit on primate cognition. Darwin Day is one week so I thought I’d share.
The text is a little hard to read so here’s transcription:
“This exhibit is about animal thinking. It contains some things you may agree with, some you may disagree with, and others that may even trouble you. Come explore and see what you think.”
The warning sign was crafted by Smithsonian staff to cater to snowflake creationists who complained about the “Changes over millions of years have resulted in today’s humans” panel that covered the age of the earth, human evolution, and how natural selection works.
The “see what you think” part suggests to visitors that the facts presented within are up for debate and thus shouldn’t undermine somebody’s alternative views about human origins or the age of the earth. But, of course, the warning signage undermines the experience for all visitors. I.e., a curious but uninformed visit might assume that the exhibits are just wild guesses about what might have happened. A shameful use of tax dollars, in my opinion.
I was wondering 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.
Here are some warning labels for books that you can print onto sticker paper. The top left sticker is an actual sticker from Cobb County, Georgia. Creationist parents had pressured the school district to paste it into biology textbooks that mentioned evolution (they all do). Their sticker made me angry (I was teaching evolution at the time), and it inspired me to waste an entire afternoon creating similar stickers based on the same silly logic.
I sent these stickers to the lawyer in Georgia involved in getting the sticker removed. The lawyer had them printed up large, as courtroom props. I hear the judge thought they were hilarious. I was happy to do my part.
If you live in a town with pitchfork-wielding parents who like to meddle in science instruction of other people’s kids, please consider downloading the PDF of the above and printing onto sticker paper. Then give them to your kids to use at school. It’s fun.