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As a measles outbreak spreads in Southern California and across multiple states, the Internet is once more being plunged into the ongoing debate over vaccination—and this time, the stakes are raised. While multiple prior outbreaks have attracted some attention, bad news at the happiest place on Earth is the catalyst for a serious conversation about vaccine-preventable disease. The Internet has reached a tipping point in its impatience over those who choose not to vaccinate, with a growing number of people taking their frustration and fury with the movement online.
People in this world are dying of diseases. Here in America we have a literal vaccine to save lives, and parents are like “lol no thanks”?
— Lauren DeStefano (@LaurenDeStefano) January 29, 2015
I don’t understand why we can’t send our kids to school with peanut butter, but we can send them without vaccines no problem.
— vaccine haver (@kerrence) January 30, 2015
In a way, we have the Internet to blame for the anti-vaccination movement in the first place. While Andrew Wakefield and his notorious withdrawn study may have laid the groundwork for vaccine refusal, the Internet allowed it to spread like wildfire. As celebrities and wealthy people took up the cause—some of the regions in the U.S. with the lowest vaccination rates are among the most wealthy—the Internet did, too, and with a vengeance.
As Law profession Steve Calandrillo writes, “the Internet worsens fears regarding vaccination safety, as at least a dozen websites publish alarming information about the risks of vaccines.” The movement has built an “impenetrable wall” online, creating an environment where misinformation is disseminated everywhere. Once exposed to it, people cling to it with the fierce desperation of parents wanting to protect their children.
The solution to the problem seems simple: Educate parents about the risks of leaving their children unvaccinated. Yet after years of trying to do just that, the movement is just as vocal as ever. Why? The solution lies in our unease to admit that we were wrong, an issue that’s been the subject of a number of studies. Those who’ve been exposed to anti-vaccination materials don’t change their minds, even when presented with facts. This “backfire effect” has serious consequences for the safety of children in school.
As the Internet debates whether unvaccinated children should be barred from school, what else should we be considering for elimination to keep our children safer?
1) Unvaccinated children
We might as well start with the topic of the day. Discussion on this subject has been swirling around the Internet ever since a father in Marin County, Ca., wrote a passionate letter to his school district calling for unvaccinated kids to be banned from the classroom. He pointed out that vaccine-preventable illnesses posed a considerable risk to his six-year-old son, who is in remission from leukemia but still highly susceptible to infection because of his weakened immune system.
His child is among the very small percentage of those who can’t be vaccinated and rely on the protection of the herd—the vast majority of the population that can be safely inoculated. In his home state of California, vaccination rates are actually starting to go up, thanks to a tough new law in the state. Parents are only allowed to exempt their children with a note from a doctor indicating that they have been counseled on the risks of refusing to vaccinate. Tougher regulations barring unvaccinated children from public school unless they have a medically documented reason would make schools safer for all children.
2) Creationist education
Numerous states, like Texas, teach creationism in public schools and include it in textbooks. This is especially apparent in science classes, where students learn patently false information about the origins of the Earth and human biology. In addition to refusing to teach the theory of evolution, creationist schools and districts also teach that the Earth is, at most, 10,000 years old.
This education doesn’t just come with troubling religious overtones. It also leaves children unprepared for the outside world, where not being educated about the scientific method and generally accepted scientific facts is a serious problem. Such students may have difficulty getting into colleges and universities, pursuing science careers, and succeeding at their jobs. Public school students shouldn’t be subjected to factually incorrect information—and in private schools, school districts should enforce standards that require students to be taught basic science.
3) Military recruiters
Even freewheeling Berkeley High has finally given in to pressure from recruiters, but maybe it shouldn’t have. While students should be more than welcome to meet with recruiters on their own time and outside school, their presence on campus poses a risk to youth. Recruiters often prey on low-income people seeking opportunities to get out of poverty and small towns—which the military can sometimes provide, but at a very high price. Recruiters offer misleading information about benefits and risks of military service, including where students will be placed, benefits they’ll be eligible for after their term of service is completed, and even claim that the war is over, in at least one case.
Enlistment has serious consequences that students may not be aware of if the only counseling and advice they get is through recruiters. That can lead to tragic choices for youth who might have other options for building better lives for themselves.
4) Abstinence-only education
Abstinence-only sexual education doesn’t work. It puts students at a higher risk of contracting STIs, including conditions like HPV, which can cause cancer later in life. In addition, poor sex ed increases the risk of teen pregnancy, which can lead to serious health risks in addition to difficult decisions about parenting, abortion, or adoption. Such education endangers the mental and physical health of students, who are forced to turn to outside resources for information.
While the Internet can provide great tools for sexual education—like venerable sexual health resource Scarleteen—it can also be full of dangerous misinformation. For students who haven’t been educated about gender, sexuality, and their own bodies, fact checking is difficult, and they may pay the price in serious long-term health consequences.
5) Religious activities
School prayer, distribution of religious pamphlets, religious groups, and other religion-related activities have no place on public school campuses, which should be secular. In addition to creating a potentially hostile environment for students who don’t share the faith of dominant religious groups, they can create a distraction from learning. Moreover, much like military recruitment, aggressive on-campus evangelism can be challenging to navigate for students who don’t have the ability to do their research and seek unbiased counseling.
Faith is a serious matter, one that can influence someone’s ethics and beliefs for life. People should consider conversion carefully and only after much counseling, something that can be difficult to do in the pressure of a school environment.
6) The Pledge of Allegiance
The “under god” component of the pledge has been a bone of contention for decades, but it’s not just that. Pledging allegiance to a nation’s flag is a serious commitment, not just an empty and formulaic gesture mumbled in a classroom every morning. While students have the right to sit out the pledge, and some exercise it, the inclusion of the pledge in morning activities is a troubling tradition. People under 18 are not legally allowed to take oaths in most situations, and the Pledge of Allegiance is, effectively, an oath.
There’s a reason we don’t allow children to take part in oaths: They’re not prepared to make significant life decisions. Moreover, allegiance is about more than an empty echo of a patriotic formula. In 1943, writing in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, Justice Robert H. Jackson wrote that “love of country must spring from willing hearts and free minds, inspired by a fair administration of wise laws enacted by the people’s elected representatives within the bounds of express constitutional prohibitions.” Not, in other words, a forced oath.
7) Sick teachers
In addition to banning unvaccinated children (and those infected with vaccine-preventable diseases), we should also be keeping sick teachers out of the classroom. Schools can be a petri dish of infection, putting everyone at risk, and teachers are no exception. Unfortunately, many educators feel pressured to work because they have a limited number of sick days and they cannot afford to take time off from work without worrying about their jobs. In addition, low pay for teachers in America can make it difficult to take time out of the classroom.
“Send me a bill that gives every worker in America the opportunity to earn seven days of paid sick leave. It’s the right thing to do. It’s the right thing to do,” pled President Barack Obama at the State of the Union. That includes teachers, who make a starting salary of just $30-40,000 in most states, with teacher wages dropping overall, a troubling trend.
Teachers who aren’t feeling well should be supported with paid leave, including fair compensation for the substitutes who need to take their place. It’s the right thing to do for teachers, and for students, who deserve a healthy person at the head of the classroom.
In the case of vaccines, the Internet is taking things full circle, fighting back with #IAMTHEHERD as people talk about to the reasons why they vaccinate, and their comments may hold the clue to turning back the tide. Studies on personal testimonies versus facts show they’re more likely to change opinions on homophobia, for example, suggesting that to change minds, we need reassurance from people who have been there, not a factual breakdown of an issue.
Can we do the same for other things that don’t belong in U.S. schools?
s.e. smith is a Northern California-based journalist and writer focusing on social justice issues. smith's work has appeared in publications like Esquire, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, In These Times, Bitch Magazine, and Pacific Standard.