A controversial autism summit scheduled for next month at Stowe High School is acting as a shot in the arm for school officials, who might rewrite their school-use policies.
The full-day seminar, “Hope and Healing for Autism and Neuro-development Disorders,” ignited concerns throughout the community because a number of area residents see it as a thinly veiled anti-vaccination movement hosted in a public school that requires all students to have immunization shots. The event is May 20.
“If we were going to have anything test our policies, this is it,” school board member Emily Rosenbaum said at Monday’s meeting. “The only thing that could be worse would be the Klan.”
According to superintendent Tracy Wrend, the school district has the option to limit public use, but it can’t limit it based on the content of the message without running afoul of federal free speech rights.
Wrend said officials could allow only municipal or school-related events to be held on school grounds, but that would shut out a number of other organizations that rent them out, including the Vermont Beekeepers Association, the annual Bitter Lacrosse Tournament, Stowe Performing Arts, Stowe Derby, Vermont Symphonic Winds, Camp for Me — a camp for adopted children and teens — and many others.
The current policy has been in place since 2005, and this is the only time Wrend can remember when an event butted up against the boundaries of free speech, public education and public safety. School officials were quick to point out that they do not, in any way, sponsor the events held at the school.
“Should allowing public use of our facilities change because the people who use it may not have positions aligned with school policy or the primary body of science?” Wrend asked.
The event organizer — Bradley Rauch, a Stowe chiropractor — insists that vaccinations are only a small part of what’s on the agenda for the event, which promises to “empower you with cutting-edge science and real-world information to make more informed decisions” about how to treat nervous-system disorders such as autism, attention disorder and dyslexia.
Speakers will include Jack Wolfson, Sherri Tenpenny, Andrew Wakefield, Del Bigtree, Sukhi Muker and Jeff Hayes.
The all-day seminar is sponsored by Rauch’s new for-profit organization called the Vermont Center for Autism and Neuro-Development Disorders.
Six of the eight members of the public present for the school board discussion gave the idea of reworking school policies a thumbs-up, but Wrend suggested waiting a while. Since changing the policy now won’t affect whether the autism seminar can use the building, since it’s already been approved, the board decided to table its decision until after the event to have time to gather more public input.
“I would recommend that you don’t make a policy that is reactive,” Wrend advised the school board. “This policy should work for the next 10 or 15 years. We have to look at it long-term.”
Rosenbaum said she spent a lot of time researching ways to prevent certain events from happening at the school, but was unable to come up with a legal way to deny the seminar, except maybe on the security and safety front. The school’s public-use policy states that event organizers must “guarantee that activities will be orderly and lawful and not of a nature to incite others to disorder, and demonstrate on the application that reasonable security arrangements appropriate for the use have been provided for.”
Rosenbaum said some of the event’s scheduled speakers “inspire a level of passion that could heighten emotions.” And board member Emily Bradbury said she’s heard some of the speakers travel with armed guards.
“I’m not sure if it’s true, but it concerns me,” Bradbury said.
Added former board member Drew Clymer, “It’s ridiculous to me that we are even talking about having an event at our school that needs police.”
Rick Weinstein, a Stowe resident, said one of the speakers, Del Bigtree, has threatened to shoot people who disagree with him.
Bigtree made the following comment at a Q&A session for "Vaxxed,” a film he produced, in July 2016 in Pittsburgh.
"At some point, we have gone too far. Do you think it's a good idea to let the government own your baby's body? And right behind it, your body? That is the end, to me. Anyone that believes in the right to bear arms, to stand up against your government, I don't know what you were saving that gun for, then. I don't know when you planned on using it if they were going to take control of your own body away. It's now. Now's the time." (See the video at Bigtree's Facebook page; quote comes around 45:02.)
“I don’t know if they’ll bring armed guards, but what if the speaker brings guns and shoots people?” Weinstein said.
Wrend said she wouldn’t have allowed the event if she had known the criteria for security couldn’t be met. She said school officials are trying to strike the right balance between public concerns and free speech.
“Language that advocates violence is not protected under free speech,” said Rosenbaum.
“The anticipated use of our facilities is not for advocating gun violence,” Wrend answered.
Let it continue
On the other side of the argument, Shona Reiter said on Front Porch Forum that it amazes her “that so many people are afraid of even talking or hearing about something that they actually don’t know much about.” Reiter said she has spent the better part of her life researching vaccines, health care, drug companies, doctors’ schooling and protocols, and how they are related to our government. While she isn’t completely anti-vaccine, she does believe that the schedule for vaccinating that the Center for Disease Control wants parents to follow is too tight for children’s bodies to handle. The vaccines should be spread out over time.
“Unless you would like to go back to living in a country like Nazi Germany then I suggest that you take a look at our country’s Constitution,” Reiter wrote. “Remember that all people deserve to be heard and your idea of trying to disallow this discussion is an invasion of people's rights. If you don't want to attend then please stay home.”
Jack Marhefka doesn’t agree with the anti-vaccine theory, but he does believe in free speech.
“I don’t know when and who gave permission for this event at the H.S., however, unless this group has a religious foundation, I don’t see how they can be denied this public forum,” Marhefka wrote on Front Porch Forum.
Claudia Stauber, an admirer of Tenpenny’s research, would like everyone to educate themselves before judging what an event is about.
“It is about educating people and helping people get inspired to live a happier and healthier life,” she said.
Rauch also took to Front Porch Forum Tuesday to respond to critics on the topic, which he said “has garnered much attention and appears quite polarized.” Rauch defended the speakers who are coming, namely Bigtree, Tenpenny and Wakefield, saying they have been painted by the national media and local letter-writers as extremists.
“History is replete with numerous examples of those whose careers and lives were destroyed by going against “mainstream” thought even when proven right years later,” Rauch wrote.
“If free speech is about being able to express their opinions, the event certainly has people talking. Some people, though, seem content to just have the whole thing behind them.
“It almost feels like we’ll have to have an exorcism after the event to remove the ugly blotch,” said Clymer.
Editor's note, April 28, 1:30 p.m.: This article has been updated with comments made by Del Bigtree.