Film clapperboard and megaphone.

“They’re learning already,” thought Matt Steitz, then-principal of Carlsbad High School in Carlsbad, CA, as he pondered a weighty decision. Who deserved his allegiance—the staff? Or students? Should he take a stand?

CHS students were producing a documentary about the human immune system, and before they knew it, they were being drawn into the controversy between advocates and opponents of vaccination, leaving Steitz squarely in the middle.

“That’s good. This is what academic inquiry means,” he thought to himself. “This is how they will become discerning adults.” At least that’s how Steitz saw it at the time.

Setting the Stage

In 2002, Carlsbad High established a student broadcast journalism department, CHSTV. Doug Green, an award-winning English teacher, became the faculty adviser and students worked to produce a daily cable news program that was carried into homes in North San Diego County. The students loved it. By 2006, CHSTV had won its first National Student Emmy from the Student Television Network (STN).

In 2007, the Carlsbad Educational Foundation secured a $198 million bond to fund improvements for the school. Lisa Posard, a soon-to-be CHSTV parent, believed teen-to-teen education via television was important for the future and saw to it that the bond initiative included resources for a professional-caliber television studio.

Broadcast journalism began to flourish at Carlsbad High. In 2008, the students produced their first video documentary—We Must Remember—about the Holocaust, which won the STN award of excellence. In 2010, CHSTV produced a second documentary, One in Seven—The New Face of Hunger, on childhood hunger. More student Emmy awards rolled in, and CHSTV achieved national recognition.

In September 2011, representatives from local Rotary Clubs approached CHSTV, requesting the students make a video documentary about immunization. Posard and Green weren’t all that enthusiastic about the idea; they doubted students had enough interest in the subject to devote an entire year to working on it. The students also were reluctant. To many of them, the human immune system seemed too scientific, too obscure, too esoteric. Why the immunization system? The students decided to study the issue before making a final decision.

Then a curious coincidence changed their minds.

In the fall of 2011, the Posard family welcomed a new member into their midst—Roxie, a Golden Retriever puppy—furry, full of energy, and always looking for someone to play with. But soon, Roxie got sick. She began to vomit and have diarrhea. She moped around the house and slept day and night. The veterinarian diagnosed Roxie with Parvovirus, a common canine illness, and told the family that Roxie had been infected by contact with another dog. Because Roxie was too young to have received her shots, she had no immunity to protect her. She also had to be quarantined to make sure she didn’t pass on the virus.

Posard’s daughter, Camille, a senior and writer on the CHSTV staff, discussed Roxie’s predicament with her friends in the broadcast journalism department. Students empathized with Roxie’s story, and it made a much greater impact on the teens than all they’d read about Jenner and the eradication of smallpox, or Pasteur and rabies, or Salk and Sabin’s conquest of polio. Several students were aware of claims that vaccines could be harmful and cause autism, so they knew the topic was controversial. Roxie’s story convinced them to plow ahead.

As an added bonus, area Rotary Clubs contributed $60,000 to underwrite the project with the proviso that they would have worldwide distribution rights. However, CHSTV would own the documentary and the students would have free rein to create content. The documentary, with an accompanying curriculum and study plan, was to be completed by the end of December 2012.

Principal Supports Real-life Experience

Principal Steitz knew immunization was a controversial topic, but he encouraged CHSTV to go ahead, knowing that producing a meaningful documentary on an important social issue was a worthwhile goal. The video would be a good example of student inquiry, he mused, plus current student filmmakers knew We Must Remember and One in Seven only as finished products. They wanted to achieve something as memorable as their predecessors had a few years earlier. And Steitz was a big believer that education occurs outside the formal classroom. There was enormous value in real-life experience.

As principal, he wanted to lead on the issue of instruction, and he felt the documentary would provide a world-class learning experience. He was confident that the students would investigate all sides of the subject, and would grow from having explored a controversial subject in depth. After all, wasn’t that his job—to help students mature?

Act I: Enter Antivaccine Bloggers

The students began the project of creating a video about the immune system and how vaccines work in April 2012. They researched the subject on the Internet and began scheduling interviews with experts. However, before the students could even begin making the film, antivaccine bloggers sprung up, launching a campaign criticizing the students’ efforts. “The blogs prompted hundreds of ugly comments and calls,” said student Camille Posard, who wrote the script for the documentary.

Why were the vaccine opponents so up in arms? Were children being harmed? Maybe vaccine makers and doctors were covering up some scandal? Posard and Green were concerned about the angry comments, as no one at Carlsbad High had anticipated the subject would be this explosive. Some argued that the students shouldn’t have to endure this kind of abuse. So, the adult advisers ordered the students to stop the project.

Act II: Battling Bullies

This outraged the students. When the broadcast team had made its first documentary about the Holocaust, students confronted angry diatribes from white supremacists. One of the themes of that project had been the importance of standing up to bullies. How could they now allow themselves to be intimidated by another group of bullies? “Remember what happens when good people do nothing?” Camille asked her mother and Green.

Act III: What’s a Principal to Do?

So, now Principal Steitz had a conundrum on his hands—should he support the faculty advisers who were part of his staff, or back the students in support of academic freedom? Steitz decided to take a step back. He gauged that the best learning experience for students was for him to stay above the fray and see how it ultimately played out. But, in his heart, he supported the students. He hoped a time would come when the students would realize the documentary afforded them an opportunity to learn and make important decisions.

Act IV: The Project Resumes

After several weeks of back-and-forth—and perhaps because the principal had tacitly supported them—the adults relented, and production resumed.

As it turned out, the documentary became a monumental learning experience. So, what about the documentary itself? The students used Roxie’s story as their lead-in for their immunization topic, then interviewed medical experts, opponents of vaccination, and parents of children who had experienced infections that might have been prevented by immunization.

The parents’ stories were especially powerful. The first case study in the documentary showcased a young mother who related how her baby, the youngest of three boys, developed a fever and a cough. She took him to the doctor who found nothing serious, reassured her, and asked her to bring the baby back the next day to be re-​examined. The cough worsened, and the physician recommended hospitalization. Both parents became worried, as the child became sicker over the next few days. He was moved to the intensive care unit, but despite an all-out effort, things went downhill fast. Four days later the baby died from what was found to be whooping cough. He had been too young to receive vaccination shots. The baby’s mother tearfully described her anguish, and the difficulty she and her husband faced when they had to tell their older sons their brother wasn’t coming home.

The students included interviews with opponents of vaccines—one a naturopathic physician, another the mother of an autistic child—who both emphasized the dangers of vaccines and antibiotics and railed against the “propaganda” of mainstream medicine. Another clip showed a local pediatrician treating an autistic boy with healing oils who said he felt vaccines are unduly risky.

As they went about the business of producing the documentary, student filmmakers became less detached and more passionate about vaccination. Some who had a built-in bias against vaccines, making statements such as “I hate needles,” and “I just don’t like the idea of someone shooting something into your blood,” now proclaimed: “Everyone who can, should be vaccinated.”

One scene began with the narrator saying, “We knew that kids hate getting shots. What is it that makes the procedure so horrible? To answer that question we decided to film someone being vaccinated. Who could we get to be our guinea pig? Someone’s little brother.” The next scene showed a 10-year-old boy in the doctor’s office. He looked the other way, waiting for the attack. The nurse quickly plunged the needle into his arm, injected the vaccine, and withdrew the needle. As she was applying a Band-Aid, he looked at her in surprise, “Is that all there is?” After she affirmed that to be the case, he looked at the camera, grinned, and shrugged his shoulders as if to say “no big deal.”

The documentary reached its climax when the CHSTV journalists discussed the moral responsibility that healthy people have to make sure that community immunization rates are high enough to protect those with immune deficiencies. The bottom line, according to the film: We have a social obligation to protect those who aren’t able to protect themselves.

In a major coup, the students enlisted the support of Dr. Paul Offit, professor of pediatrics and director of the Vaccine Education Center (who also happens to be an attending physician in the Division of Infectious Diseases) at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Offit, a leading authority on vaccines, rebutted the antivaccine groups. He praised the students for their courage, saying, “It’s time that someone, I think, stands up and shines a light on exactly what’s going on here.”

As part of producing the documentary, students had to absorb vilification by antivaccine groups who portrayed CHSTV and the Rotarians as dupes of the pharmaceutical industry. Forbes magazine described how vaccine opponents implied that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, supporters of global immunization, were in cahoots with Big Pharma in order to bolster their investments in drug companies.

Act V: The Payoff

The students titled the documentary Invisible Threat and finished it, with its accompanying curriculum and study plan, on schedule.

Those involved in the project credit Steitz for his leadership and support throughout. Steitz backed his students—whether it involved answering critics, helping to schedule interviews, or communicating with parents who weren’t really sure what was going on.

Invisible Threat rolled out in May 2013 and scored more than 90 endorsements from medical and academic organizations, including Johns Hopkins University and the Mayo Clinic. Posard, acting as executive director of CHSTV, traversed the United States gathering support. With the help of “Every Child by Two” and former first lady Rosalynn Carter, she secured a viewing at the U.S. Capitol in May 2014. Rotary International began distributing copies of the DVD to its 1.2 million members around the world as well.

Green had been cautious about over-promoting the documentary within school walls to protect students from any potential harassment. But Principal Josh Porter, Matt Steitz’s successor, reports that no such thing has materialized. The school library has copies of the DVD for students and teachers to use, and, in fact, Porter expects many teachers will find a way to incorporate the documentary into lesson plans over the next few years. In June, California passed a pro-vaccination law limiting personal belief exemptions from immunization, which will go into effect in 2016 and likely further enhance the value of Invisible Threat.

By supporting his students, Principal Steitz promoted an ageless story of courage and steadfastness, of coming of age, and of what young people can achieve with the support of others.

Offit summarized the reactions of most viewers saying, “Seeing what these kids did with this film gives me hope for the future.”

Kevin Glynn, MD, is a pulmonary specialist in La Jolla, CA, and was an interviewee in Invisible Threat.