The ACLU of Rhode Island recognizes the Department of Health’s legitimate interest in promoting the HPV vaccine for both boys and girls. We also appreciate that there are some illnesses that warrant imposition of mandatory vaccinations in order to protect children attending school. However, excluding middle and high school students from school for being unvaccinated against HPV strikes us as an unfitting and disproportionate remedy.
Exclusion from school is an extremely severe penalty that should be used only when truly necessary, and not as a stick to promote more generalized public health goals. We believe the state’s efforts would be much better spent on educating parents and students on the importance of the HPV vaccine rather than using a punitive approach that deprives children of a public education. Rhode Island’s record, prior to implementation of this mandate, of leading the nation in HPV vaccination rates supports this notion.
Encouraging preventive measures to protect children’s health is extremely important, but so is a child’s right to an education. In light of the concerns that have been expressed regarding the requirement, we encourage the Department of Health to formally clarify that school districts should not exclude children from school solely because they do not receive the HPV vaccine, and that the law’s “religious” exemption broadly encompasses objections of conscience as well.