L.A. charter school sued over student COVID vaccine mandate

Opponents of COVID-19 vaccine mandates for students have extended the reach of their litigation to a Westside charter school after filing high-profile suits against the state’s two largest-school systems, Los Angeles Unified and San Diego Unified.

A lawsuit filed Jan. 18 targets New West Charter on behalf of unnamed students at the school, alleging that the school’s student vaccine mandate is unnecessary, discriminatory and in violation of California laws regarding vaccine policy. The litigation against New West was filed on behalf of Let Them Breathe, a San Diego County-based organization that also has opposed mask mandates for students.

“Keeping healthy children out of the classroom is contrary to California law, is not necessary to reduce cases of COVID-19 in schools, and is not in the best interest of students, parents or schools,” according to the complaint by the group whose website describes it as “a quickly growing group of over 30K parents” who advocate for choice in education.

The school administrators say that it is within their rights to implement the vaccine mandate and other coronavirus safety protocols — and that these measures have overwhelming support from parents and staff.

San Diego County Superior Court Judge John Meyer has blocked San Diego Unified from enforcing its mandate, which applied to students 16 and older and was scheduled to take effect on Jan. 24. A district official said the school system will pursue an appeal. The court’s ruling applied only to San Diego Unified, but could prove a bellwether for challenges to student vaccine mandates adopted by a handful of other California school districts.

Meyer said in the ruling that it is within the purview of the state Legislature, not school districts, to mandate a vaccine for school attendance.

Litigation is also pending against the L.A. Unified School District’s student vaccine mandate.

In December, L.A. Unified postponed enforcement of its mandate because more than 20,000 students were not on track to comply in time. Officials were concerned about classroom disruptions both for vaccinated and unvaccinated students — and the ability of the district to accommodate so many students in an overstretched independent study program. The L.A. Unified mandate, which applies to students 12 and older, is set to take effect in the fall.

The L.A. Board of Education this week voted 7 to 0 to file a court brief in support of San Diego Unified’s student mandate.

Also this week, state Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) introduced legislation that would add a COVID-19 vaccine to the state’s list of required inoculations for students 5 and older, a change that, if it becomes law, would remove some of the legal arguments being made against student vaccine mandates. Pan’s legislation would not take effect before January 2023.

The Let Them Breathe lawsuit against New West asserts that the school “lacks authority to mandate childhood vaccines that are different from or in addition to those required by California state law to attend school.”

New West’s charter school vaccine mandate applies to students 12 and older and took effect Jan. 18. The governor’s office and local health authorities have defended the legal right of schools and school districts to mandate stronger COVID-19 safety protocols, including vaccine mandates for students. New West has noted that 96% of students are vaccinated and that parents received multiple reminders.

“We have worked very hard since last October to ensure every single parent knew that, upon our return from winter break, we would be implementing a new policy requiring that every student provide proof of vaccination and a negative COVID test to be allowed on campus,” the school said in a statement to the media. “While we respect the right of parents to make their own choices for their children, our obligation is to our entire school community. When we have committed to implement a policy to assure parents that our campus is safe for their students, we will stand by that commitment.”

Video posted on Twitter by Let Them Breathe has gained widespread attention and shows six students engaged in a school parking lot sit-in because, they said, they were not being allowed to attend classes. The Twitter post by the group stated that unvaccinated students were “segregated behind barriers & not allowed to attend class. They asked for chairs, were denied & are sitting on the pavement, not allowed to even use restroom. LAPD is on site but not intervening.”

Another video on social media shows three security officers, including a Los Angeles police officer, guarding the entrance of the school, with angry parents on the other side. Sharon Weir, the school’s executive director and principal, steps out briefly to announce that students who continue to cause a disruption would face suspension.

In response to the videos, New West school officials said six students did not comply with the policy and attempted to attend class. Under the mandate approved last October, students could not attend in-person classes, but could enroll in the school’s independent study option. In a statement, the school said staff did not “segregate” or suspend the unvaccinated students. Instead, staff asked the students and their parents to leave campus.

“But they chose to stay on campus and sit behind a cordoned-off area where student PCR screenings were taking place.” the statement said. “School staff requested the help of local law enforcement to deescalate the situation.”

The school also recently dealt with anti-mask protesters who confronted students outside the school.

“Take your mask off,” one demonstrator shouted through a bullhorn in a scene captured on video. “A mask is a symbol of slavery and control. That’s all it is. It does nothing for your health.”

The school has about 1,000 students in grades 6 through 12. It is authorized by the state Board of Education rather than L.A. Unified and is not subject to the vaccine policies of L.A. Unified.

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