A Yates County family is desperate for help.
Thorn Schwartz, 11, who is severely autistic, is not allowed to go to school anymore, according to his parents. That’s because his school district, Monroe BOCES No. 1, denied his medical exemption for vaccines. The family is now suing the school and the state commissioner of health.
In June after an outbreak of measles, mostly in suburban New York City, the state repealed the religious exemption for vaccines. But lawmakers said they didn’t change the medical exemption. The Schwartz family wants state Supreme Court to suspend the denial so Thorn can go back to school.
“He is a cute, little active guy. Highly gifted,” father Carl Schwartz said, describing his son. “And severely autistic.”
Carl and wife, Kerri Schwartz, said Thorn started changing when he was 3 and they learned anything that goes into his body can have a terrible effect, like when they used anesthesia to have his teeth cleaned at the dentist.
“It was 12 weeks before he was back at equilibrium again,” his mother Kerri said. That’s why they say they need the medical exemption for vaccines. Thorn is a student at Creekside school at BOCES No. 1 in Fairport, where he was sent after the Penn Yan Central School District concluded they were helpless to address Thorn’s needs as the most severely autistic student they had ever had.
Carl Schwartz said every year Thorn was at Creekside he had a medical exemption to be there. Schwartz said he doesn’t know why this year the exemption was denied.
“We’re not medical doctors so even if we were given a medical reason, we probably still wouldn’t know,” Schwartz said.
On Sept. 9, the Schwartzes got a letter from the school principal that said the BOCES doctor reviewed Thorn’s exemption and ruled it is “not consistent” with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control. The Schwartzes received another document from BOCES No. 1 that gave them until Wednesday, Sept. 18, to get Thorn his shots. They didn’t. So on Thursday, Sept. 19, he was not allowed back.
Thorn’s father, an attorney, filed a lawsuit Thursday, Sept. 19, suing the principal of Creekside school at BOCES No. 1, the BOCES No. 1 nurse and doctor, and Dr. Howard Zucker, the commissioner of state health.
In an email, BOCES No. 1 said: “We, like all school districts, are following the law and guidance provided by the New York State Department of Health.”
The Department of Health stated: “Immunizations give children the best protection from serious childhood diseases and the science is crystal clear that vaccines are safe and effective.”
Schwartz said this is a life-or-death situation for the family. “This little guy needs to be in school now,” Schwartz said. “Certainly we could get him vaccinated and we may never see our son Thorn as we know him today again if we did so.”
After they shared their story with News10NBC, the court listened. New York State Supreme Justice William Taylor ordered that everyone involved in the situation be in his courtroom Friday, Sept. 27. Friday night, Sept. 20, Taylor signed an “order to show cause” against the defendants to prove why “an order should not be made enjoining Defendants from denying Thorn Sterling Schwartz’s medical exemption...” The hearing is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 27.
The Schwartzes have also reached out to N.Y. State Sen. Brian Kolb, Assemblyman Phil Palmesano, and U.S. Representative Tom Reed in navigating how to restore their son’s medical exemption. Palmesano has been personally in touch with them and has staffers tracking down what happened in the application of the law.
In her affidavit filed in the suit, Kerri Schwartz, a doctor of psychology, describes her son’s condition and needs. “Thorn is autistic and non-verbal...His disability includes a lack of ability to communicate, social impairments, and sensory processing problems... Thorn requires a very structured routine to be able to stay regulated...His full school program is so important to him that we are having to learn how to replicate it as much as possible to make him successful at home as well... Speaking as both Thorn’s mother and as a Doctor of Psychology in School Psychology, being out of school would be damaging to Thorn.”
Dr. Schwartz goes on to describe her son’s extreme physical reactions to certain foods but especially medications such as anesthesia, with the backing of Dr. Robert Ostrander who has been Thorn’s doctor his entire life and who issued the medical exemption for him based on his medical history.
“I also object,” writes Kerri, “to a doctor who does not know Thorn being able to decide what his body can or cannot tolerate, or what is in his best interest medically... There is no way a doctor who has never met Thorn or at least talked with Dr. Ostrander can make a decision about the effect that vaccines could have on Thorn.”
In a deposition filed with the suit, Carl Schwartz stated under oath that before filing the suit, he communicated with Dr. Ostrander who is vacationing in Germany until the end of the month. Ostrander said to Schwartz that as a doctor, he is “as pro-vaccine as one can be,” and he “does not routinely hand out vaccine exemptions.” After working with many specialists in Thorn’s treatment, Ostrander stated that he has learned that Thorn does not have a lot of brain resilience and any stimulation of Thorn’s immune system can trigger behavioral setbacks. “Thorn is delicately balanced at best,” and it is for these reasons he concluded that Thorn should have a medical exemption. Ostrander concluded that “with the complexities posed by autism, each body should be treated on an individual basis by an attending physician.”
Over the years, says Carl, Thorn’s condition has been so bad he has smashed house and vehicle windows with his body, destroyed their kitchen cabinets, appliances, and televisions, and as he has grown, poses a physical threat to his family members.
“This calendar year,” said Carl, “Thorn has done so well with his education at school that he has finally stopped being routinely violent... Controlling what goes into Thorn’s body is critical for him and for his effects upon his family at a level quite literally described as ‘life and death.’”
Kerri says, “My greatest fear is that if Thorn receives more vaccines that he will regress and lose the gains he has made since attending Creekside...I fear that his body will be so disrupted that he will become aggressive to my other children. For my son Thorn, I fear a behavioral setback more than any disease.”
Carl concludes, “If Thorn does not qualify for a medical exemption, then no one does — he is the reason why such exemptions exist.”