LPS superintendent says he got death threats over vaccine controversy

Videos of minors about to receive shots after lying to staff spurred turmoil

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Littleton Public Schools Superintendent Brian Ewert said he received death threats and other harassing emails after two videos surfaced on a right-wing Twitter account showing minors unaccompanied by their parents cleared to receive a COVID-19 vaccine during a clinic at Heritage High School on Jan. 21. The two videos, posted on Jan. 25, have since been deleted, and neither student received a vaccination.

The videos, in which a 15-year-old high school student and 16-year-old homeschooled student lie to clinic staff about age and parental consent, were part of a deliberate attempt to shut down the clinic, and the chances of others in the future, the father of the high school student said

Ewert made the decision to do just that, issuing a statement on Jan. 25 that said the district “does not condone the administration of COVID vaccines or any other vaccines to minors without a parent present to provide consent.” But that came as Ewert said he and other district staff faced threatening emails.

“No one really realizes the upheaval that this caused in our school district,” Ewert said. “The threats, the phone calls, it was very, very ugly, very nasty.”

'Deceitful to prove a point'

The controversy surrounds what some parents said was the school district and health officials undermining their authority by allowing their children to be authorized for a vaccine that they never gave consent for. 

In one video, 16-year-old Alexander Tallentire lies to clinic staff and gives a fake birthday that would make him 20 years old, old enough to receive a shot without needing parental approval. The other video shows 15-year-old Owen McGough tell staff he is underage but handing them a fake parental consent form. Neither child actually goes through with being vaccinated, the videos show and the parents confirmed. 

But the outrage drummed up by the children's parents, Karen Tallentire and Gregg McGough, who appeared along with several others during a Jan. 27 school board meeting to criticize the district, has forced an end to school-hosted clinics, at least for now. Ewert added that he is “disappointed that we would have kids be deceitful to prove a point around vaccination clinics.”

COVID vaccine clinics are not new for the Littleton Public Schools district, with LPS having hosted four in the past with more than 1,000 vaccines administered, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), including 63 administered at the Heritage site. And even before the pandemic, the district had hosted clinics for a variety of vaccinations for other diseases, Ewert said.

The superintendent said that while he stands by his decision to end the clinic for now, he may be open to hosting COVID vaccine sites again in the future, especially if a new variant emerges. Ewert said he and the district are “ready to help any families or any kids who are interested in getting vaccinations” through other community sites. 

If the district does decide to renew hosting clinics on school grounds, Ewert said parents will be required to accompany children in-person. The remark addresses what was one of the most contentious issues raised by some parents who said the district had led them astray when it told them in a newsletter that parents had to be present for vaccinations. 

“I'm the one who incorrectly assumed that that was required,” said Ewert, who had been told by the Tri-County Health Department on Jan. 25 that only parental consent was needed for unaccompanied children.

Ewert also received heat from the parents for having the clinic hosted during school hours. The Heritage High School Clinic was hosted from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., with high school classes ending at 4 p.m. 

“If we go forward, they will be after hours, they will require a parent to be present,” Ewert said about the prospect of future clinics. 

Parents differ over school's role in public health 

McGough and Tallentire, the parents of the two minors who filmed the clinic, said public health agencies have no place on school grounds. 

“Schools are where education is supposed to be happening. Schools are not about public health environments, which is what they've become,” McGough said, adding that he felt the vaccine had become political and was bringing politics into schools. 

While McGough said the video deceptions were not a stance against vaccines, he told Colorado Community Media that he felt CDPHE's decision to prohibit providers from asking for ID for the vaccine “put children in harm's way.”

Both McGough and Tallentire spoke during a public school board meeting on Jan. 27 along with several other parents who decried not just vaccine clinics at schools but the district's mask mandate as well. 

During the meeting, Karen Tallentire said a third minor had tried to lie to the clinic's staff to see if they could get vaccinated but gave a fake birthday that put them under the age of 17 and was denied, per guidelines. While Tallentire said this showed staff were capable of following their own guidelines, she said the fact that two other minors were able to lie their way to almost getting a vaccine showed that staff failed to vet them properly. 

“Why is it so very important to have clinics in school unless someone wants children to go to clinics when their parents aren't there,” Tallentire said. 

For one district parent, having clinics at school would have made it far easier, and quicker, to vaccinate her two children. 

Lindsey Gorzalski Hocking, the parent of a 5- and 7-year-old who attend LPS, said she had wanted to get her kids vaccinated at school since both she and her husband work full-time. But with no information about when a clinic was going to open again, she took two weeks tracking down other options before landing appointments in November at Children's Hospital Colorado, where her two children received their first dose. 

“If I could have taken an hour or two to go to the school, pick them up, sign the consent and do it right there, that would have made it so much easier,” Hocking said. 

She said she was disappointed with Ewert's decision to stop hosting future clinics and felt that McGough and Tallentire's actions cost the community a valuable space for vaccines. 

“They succeeded, and I hate that that was the outcome,” Hocking said. “We look to schools to provide so much more than education, childcare, food security, social-emotional learning. And public health is a component of all of that.” 

Hocking said that for those in Littleton unable to make it to clinics, whether it be lack of transportation or difficulty sifting through online information, schools are an easy place to find a vaccine. 

“There's still pockets in our neighborhood of folks who are facing economic security,” she said. “We had no digital literacy barriers. Other parents that want their kid to have it but having more resource barriers … it's going to be harder.”

Karen Tallentire, in an interview, said “there seem to be clinics everywhere.” 

“If they don't have a car they could probably walk on their own two feet to the nearest vaccine clinic,” she said, doubling down on her stance that having clinics in schools threatened parental choice. 

But for Hocking, the actions of a few should not have cost the rest of the community. 

“If it's up to parents' choice, why are you taking away other parents' choice,” she said. 

Health department stands by clinics in schools 

CDPHE, who contracted with staff from Jogan Health to run the Heritage High School clinic, said in an email statement that having vaccination clinics in schools remains a crucial line of defense in the fight against COVID-19. 

“Schools are a trusted partner, not only for students and their families but also for their surrounding community. We have hosted more than 175 clinics at schools across the state and continue these partnerships to host more,” the health department said. “This intentional attempt to close down vaccine clinics does not change our approach or efforts at increasing access to COVID-19 vaccine and meeting people where they are.”

The agency said that, for some families, driving to other clinics is not an option, especially if they are working multiple jobs. CDPHE also defended its guidelines for not requiring ID as a means to make the vaccine more accessible, especially for vulnerable populations. 

“It is imperative that individuals are not denied access to the vaccine due to their documentation status or inability to get government-issued identification,” the agency said. “Requiring proof of ID, especially a government-issued ID, can exacerbate distrust and accessibility inequities for many critical groups. This requirement would be a barrier for people who are unable to get identification or have trouble accessing services that issue IDs, such as those who are undocumented, experiencing homelessness, have a disability, or others.”

In an earlier statement provided to Colorado Community Media, a spokesperson for the Tri-County Health Department, who sponsored the clinic at Heritage, defended the site's staff and said proper protocols were followed. 

“Our judgment is that state protocols appear to have been followed in assessing appropriateness of offering vaccination. Furthermore, since both students seem to have changed their minds and declined vaccination, we are not aware of any student who received the vaccine without parental authorization,” said Becky O'Guin, who added that the videos and subsequent backlash “is hurting those in our community who want and need easier access to the vaccine for themselves and their children.” 

During the Jan. 27 board meeting, Karen Tallentire warned health clinics around Colorado that if they did not shore up their vetting practices, similar issues may creep up on them in the future.

“You can bet we know some other kids who are eager to see what they can get away with, so clinics throughout Colorado should consider themselves worried,” Tallentire said. 

CDPHE said it was undeterred by the video deception incident. 

“State-run COVID-19 vaccine clinics will continue to operate in such a way to maximize vaccine access and reduce barriers to vaccination. We will continue to hold all our vendors accountable to complying with both state law and state policy.”

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