I guess that the antivaccinationists didn’t listen to me last time when I suggested that maybe—just maybe—using Holocaust analogies when discussing autism and vaccines is just a wee bit inappropriate, such an overblown analogy that it spreads far more heat than light. At least, Kent Heckenlively didn’t, and, because his invocation of the Nazi card came in the context of dealing with an issue that I blogged about before, I couldn’t resist commenting on it again.
But first, the gratuitous Nazi analogy, courtesy of that “nice guy” Kent Heckenlively, which comes near the end of his post:
When I was young I remember reading Anne Frank’s quote that, “Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.” I thought she was a fool. She thought people were good. The Nazis killed her.
And yet I find as I get older I have a greater understanding of her wisdom. We are engaged in a great conflict for the health of future generations. Many will not understand. A few will be hostile. And yet the great majority of people are really good at heart. They can be made to understand what is at stake in this fight.
That’s right, the forces arrayed against Kent and his antivaccine agenda are just like Nazis hunting down and murdering Anne Frank and her family, but the people that he thought to be evil before are really “good at heart.” They apparently just don’t understand the things that Kent understands! So what is it that he understands that those nasty, reductionists scientists and doctors who deny the “autism Holocaust” don’t? That vaccines cause autism, of course! Except, of course, that they don’t and Kent’s belief is a delusion. None of that stops him from championing that view and, sadly, subjecting his autistic daughter to all manner of quackery up to and including stem cell injections into her cerebrospinal fluid, even at the expense of hitting up his family for thousands of dollars to pay for it.
The background behind Kent’s little rant is as follows. About a year ago, the President of the Board of Education of the San Ramon Valley Unified School District, Greg A. Marvel, wrote an open letter in which he promoted the antivaccine film The Greater Good, concluding by strongly recommending “that every parent watch this film.” At the time, I pointed out that Marvel was abusing his position as President of the School Board to promote a viewpoint that is actively harmful to the children he is supposed to be serving. Unfortunately, if Heckenlively is to be believed, there were complaints:
Last year the President of our School Board wrote a public letter of support after viewing “The Greater Good”, a documentary about the danger of vaccine side-effects. Since that time other members of our union and the school board have also viewed it and provided me with their supportive comments. There will be more showings of the film in the district.
Several curious things happened to the President of the School Board after he wrote the letter of support for “The Greater Good.” He told me he got the ugliest hate letters he’d ever received in more than ten years of public service and his e-mail account was hacked. He still won re-election. (Note to the opposition – That kind of activity doesn’t win allies to your side. In fact, it sort of makes people more willing to listen to my concerns. And I should inform you I am now the union liaison to that school board member.)
Alright, people. Hate letters are not cool. However, I do take Heckenlively’s account with a grain of salt. He provides no evidence that the e-mail hacking had anything to do with Marvel’s open letter, and he provides no examples of letters to show that these letters were truly “ugly hate letters.” From my experience, antivaccinationists are very quick to claim persecution and don the mantle of free speech martyr. They do it at the drop of a hat; it’s a feature, not a bug. I’m not saying that Marvel didn’t get hate mail, but I’m not taking Heckenlively’s word that it went down the way he claims.
More interestingly, apparently Kent Heckenlively’s antivaccine activities have also had…consequences:
Kent Heckenlively, Gale Ranch Middle School teacher, shared that he has a vaccine-injured child. Approximately three years ago, he wrote an article about vaccines injuring students. Someone from outside of the district complained and his administrator said in order to protect him, she was going to put an unofficial letter of reprimand into his personnel file because of this article. Mr. Heckenlively found this action unjust. He is telling his story to show support for his fellow teachers.
Normally, I’m not a fan of people bringing private blog issues into the bloggers’ work. Having been at the receiving end of that sort of tactic many times from the antivaccine movement and from various quacks, I understand that in most cases it is nothing more than a naked attempt to intimidate me into silence by trying to get my bosses to do what the quacks can’t: Shut me up. It hasn’t worked so far, and fortunately the two cancer centers at which I’ve worked during the time I’ve been blogging have had leadership enlightened enough to recognize such complaints for what they are and a sufficient commitment to academic freedom to ignore them after a polite acknowledgment, which is, of course, all that cranks rate, if even that. Yes, it’s pretty obvious that these complaints come from cranks. Of course, I can’t help but note the irony that Heckenlively is so upset at complaints about his apparently good buddy Mr. Marvel and him but seemed quite OK when a bunch of antivaccinationists tried to get me fired from my job three years ago by flooding my dean’s office and the office of the board of governors of my university with bogus complaints about my alleged undisclosed conflicts of interest that in actuality didn’t exist.
The question is a bit dicier when a teacher advocates viewpoints that are in direct contradiction to school district or state school policy; i.e., Heckenlively’s opposition to vaccines. The San Ramon Unified School District promotes and implements state vaccination policy. In fact, Heckenlively recognizes that, as he said in remarks to the school board:
The schools have a unique role to play in this debate as you are both an accomplice, given the recommendation you make to parents that they should follow the CDC’s immunization schedule, and you are a victim, because you are left with these broken children to care for and educate as best you can.
Actually, teachers and school districts do have an important role to play in promoting immunization, as well they should. School vaccine mandates have been enormously successful in keeping vaccination rates high. If a teacher is a public activist for a cause that directly opposes the policies of the district for which he works and that could potentially harm the children his district serves, it is not unreasonable to make reasonable complaints about him. In particular, it is perfectly justified if the person making the complaint lives within the school district and has children attending a school in that district. Such a person is both a taxpayer and a customer, so to speak, and is perfectly within his rights to complain, and a school district is perfectly within its rights to look into the complaint.
Unfortunately, from Heckenlively’s post, it’s obvious that he’s agitating among antivaccinationists in his school district and among his fellow teachers. His long, rambling statement laden with antivaccine tropes indicates this:
I come before you as the father of a vaccine-injured child, a science teacher, and as chairman of the Health and Safety Committee for the San Ramon Valley Education Association.
I come before you to ask for your engagement on the issue of how vaccines are damaging the health of our children.
Last December, shortly after I became Chairman of the Health and Safety Committee I began to raise these issues with the executive board of our teacher’s union. I provided them with peer-reviewed science articles, and statements from top medical officials, including Dr. Bernadine Healy, former head of the National Institutes of Health, to the effect that proper vaccine safety studies had not been done and that officials had told her that such studies would not be done for fear of what they might find.
Our children deserve better. The executive council of our local union voted without a single dissenting vote to support my motion to have the California Teachers’ Association consider the issues I had raised.
The sad thing is, Heckenlively is a science teacher. Whether that gives him any special credibility among nonmedical people or not, I don’t know, but he mentions it frequently; so I assume that he thinks it should. Moreover, it’s very clear that he’s agitating and proselytizing his fellow teachers, trying to persuade them of his antivaccine views, bombarding them with pseudoscience, misinterpreted studies, cherry picked studies, and all manner of antivaccine misinformation.
After I saw Kent’s post, it occurred to me yet again. Teachers really are on the front lines here. True, they’re not as much on the front lines as school nurses, but all it takes are a few antivaccine parents or a couple of antivaccine teachers to embroil them in this conflict. In fact, reading Kent’s post calling them “accomplices,” I thought: “Kent, you say that as though it were a bad thing!” To be an “accomplice” in promoting vaccination and thus the prevention of serious diseases that once ravaged children is a badge of honor, a high calling, something to be proud of. Joining Kent in his crusade to frighten parents into not vaccinating is exactly the opposite of what teachers should do. It’s a profound betrayal of their duty to be advocates for the health and well-being of the children they serve.
I feel sorry for the teachers who work with Kent Heckenlively. I feel equally bad for the children of the school district.