Attendees held signs during a May 13 forum on immunizations (CHRISTINE STUART / CTNEWSJUNKIE FILE PHOTO)

HARTFORD, CT — Parents of a boy with autism are suing the state Department of Public Health for releasing school-level data in May that revealed how many unvaccinated children attended each of Connecticut’s private and public schools during the 2017-18 school year.

Kristen and Brian Festa, who are representing themselves without an attorney, are seeking an injunction against the public health department to stop the expected release of the data for the 2018-19 school year.

The complaint says the Festas have a son who attends Meliora Academy in Meriden where 18.5% of the students reported religious exemptions to required vaccinations for the 2017-18 school year.

On May 3, the public health department released school-level data for the first time, including the percentage of children in kindergarten and seventh grade in each school who were vaccinated against measles and other diseases as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The DPH also included the percentage of children in any grade who claimed an immunization exemption, which is based on what the schools report to the state.

After a few schools reported errors in their numbers, revised data released May 10 indicated that 109 schools had kindergartens or seventh grades with immunization rates below the 95% standard for measles, mumps, and rubella for the 2017-18 school year.

Department of Public Health Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell said the goal of sharing the data “is to increase public awareness of vaccination rates in local communities. Hopefully, this will lead to more engagement and focus on increasing immunization rates to reduce the risk of vaccine-preventable diseases.”

The Festas claim that almost immediately after the May 3 release of the information that “hateful and vitriolic statements regarding non-vaccinated students and parents began appearing on the internet. Upon information and belief, these and prior statements are characteristic of the harassment commonly experienced by parents who do not immunize their children due to a religious objection.”

Some of the postings on Facebook included comments, according to the lawsuit, such as, “If my kid can’t bring peanut butter to school then yours can’t bring the deathly plague. Vaccinate or I’m bringing the Jiffy.”

Another Facebook user wrote, “Unvaccinated kids should have to wear something on them at all times to let people know they may be exposing themselves to diseases.” Still another Facebook comment read, “So you are an antivaxer? You should probably move to a private island if you don’t like the US. We would all be happy with that, especially if you are a scumbag antivaxer. Ignorant trash like you are why we have a Measles epidemic reoccurrence.”

The Festas argue that since the school their 7-year-old son attends was “publicly exposed as a school with one of the highest rates of exemption usage, all students and parents of students at Meliora and other schools with high exemption rates — including the Applicants — are potential targets of harassment.”

Even though their son has not received a specific threat, “the public response to the Defendant’s release of confidential immunization information has been overwhelmingly negative and hateful.”

While the complaint suggests that “confidential immunization information” was released by the DPH, no names of unvaccinated students were released with the school-level data — only the totals by school of vaccinated and unvaccinated students, and only for kindergarten and seventh grade.

However, based on the public release of the information, the complaint states that “it is reasonable to presume that Meliora students like A.F. may become targets of hate speech and other harassment.”

The lawsuit arrives on the heels of a legislative session during which lawmakers, following the release of the 2017-18 school-level data, raised concerns the potential for measles outbreaks at schools with low immunization rates and discussed the possibility of legislating an end to religious exemptions for school vaccinations.

A vocal group of parents and advocates loudly opposed the idea, suggesting it was a violation of individual freedoms including access to public education, and some said they believed that their children had been injured by vaccines.

Before the session ended June 5, legislators decided to table efforts to eliminate the religious exemption, saying they wanted clearer instructions from the DPH on how to boost immunization rates among school-age children and what authority they would need to do so.

House Majority Leader Matt Ritter also had said that the DPH would continue to release school-level data on religious and medical exemptions and the number of unvaccinated children per school. But there’s no indication from the department that the 2018-19 information is forthcoming.

The DPH already had been releasing vaccination data on a statewide and county basis each year. The release of school-level data in May was the first time that information was released even though it has been continuously collected.

The attorney general’s office is representing the public health department in the lawsuit and has asked for an extension to respond. It declined comment on the pending lawsuit.  A judge is expected to hear arguments on the request for the continuance on July 15.

The DPH data is available here as MS Excel speadsheets:

Kindergarten 2017-18
Seventh grade 2017-18