When 15-year-old Ellah Nahum and a few other unvaccinated students showed up at Los Angeles' New West Charter School on Tuesday, January 18, after winter break, they brought lunches, backpacks, and negative COVID-19 tests, hoping to be allowed in. They'd been negotiating with school administrators since early October, when the school had announced that a vaccine mandate would go into effect in January. Prior to returning to school from winter break, they'd requested a hearing, attempting to find alternative options to getting vaccinated.
When they showed up at school around 7:30 a.m., they sailed through the first checkpoint, run by two newly hired security guards who were satisfied with the girls' proof of negative test conducted in the last 24 hours. It was the second checkpoint, run by school administrators demanding proof of vaccination, that created trouble for the teens. Several hours later, after tense negotiations between administrators, teens, and their parents, the school called Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) to the scene, and cordoned the teens off, denying them chairs and bathroom breaks, according to the girls.
Nahum tells Reason she's unvaccinated for several reasons. Given her Jewish faith, she has reservations about putting foreign substances in her body, like vaccines or birth control pills (though she's received all childhood vaccines required to enter school). She has concerns about the fact that most other vaccines go through many years of testing, whereas the COVID-19 vaccine has not. Some of her friends have had their menstrual cycles stop around the same time they got vaccinated or encountered other bizarre side effects. And, all that aside, she already contracted the virus back in December 2020.
"The big thing that's been going around is that I'm an anti-vaxxer, and that's not the case," she says. The school claims its student body is 96 percent vaccinated, but Nahum mentions that she's heard through the grapevine that some students have falsified their vaccination information, so that may be a slight overcount.
Regardless, the school has taken a hard-line stance. On the day the mandate controversy transpired, parents anticipated that their kids might have some trouble and accompanied them to school, expecting to reason with the administration. The school called the LAPD around 10 or 10:30 a.m. An officer came and told the girls they weren't supposed to be on campus then, to which Nahum responded that they have a lawyer and a hearing with the school.
"If anything, us not attending school is the illegal part of the matter," Nahum says she told one of the cops (who was himself unvaccinated). For several hours, Nahum and her schoolmates were kept confined to an outdoor area with a hard concrete floor, where they were sitting on a thin pipe that was lining a wall. She likens it to doing a wall sit, but some of the girls, who ranged in age from 14 to 16, started asking for chairs. Nahum asked the police officer, who asked the administrators, who denied the request, along with another one from a girl who wanted to use the bathroom. (New West denies this account.)
"At that point it almost became comedic," she says. "They are adults doing something to 15-year-old girls…if anything this just looks worse on them."
Line dividers—the types you see at concerts—were brought over to cage the girls in, confining them to that area. ("Broski, I can just go underneath," Nahum says jokingly to me.) It felt like being in a zoo, she says. Then the bell rang and students filed out of class and began asking why the girls were cordoned off. "Because they're unvaccinated," responded an administrator, according to Nahum, which made her "furious" because the school wasn't supposed to give out her medical information like that.
Around noon, the girls received an ultimatum: If they didn't leave, they would face suspension. Nahum and the group decided to leave and haven't attended school since.
Students are already required to take a COVID-19 test weekly, and when Reason pressed school administrators on whether proof of natural immunity would be sufficient to allow them to return to school, or why their current weekly testing regime is insufficient, they didn't respond.
A lawsuit was filed January 18 on behalf of unnamed students by Let Them Breathe, an organization that has fought against mask and vaccine mandates and won a similar lawsuit against San Diego Unified School District. The suit alleges that such vaccine mandates are in violation of California law. San Diego County Superior Court Judge John S. Meyer noted that such vaccine mandates can only be legally imposed by the state legislature, not by specific school districts.
"Students weren't showing up to stage a sit-in, they were showing up to go to school," says Sharon McKeeman of Let Them Breathe. "New West is putting out statements saying these students showed up to protest and disrupt, but they didn't!"
COVID-19 poses minimal threat to young people and can be transmitted by vaccinated people as well as the unvaccinated. The school even delayed its return from winter break due to so many people in the community coming down with COVID-19. The hospitalization rate, per recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, stands at 5.4 per million for unvaccinated teens, which is roughly the same as the current hospitalization rate for vaccinated adults.
"If it's really about keeping the campus safe, you would've taken us up on the offer to test every day," says Nahum, noting that the way she was publicly cordoned off was humiliating. "I'm not expecting to have many friends when I come back."