Indiana Student With AIDS Files Suit Over Move To Bar Him From School
In what is thought to be the first legal test of the educational rights of students with acquired immune deficiency syndrome, lawyers for a 13-year-old Indiana boy suffering from AIDS have filed suit against his school district in federal district court over the boy's right to attend classes.
Earlier this summer, the district's superintendent had barred the boy from school because of concern that he might infect other pupils.
In response to the suit, a group of 300 parents in the district has threatened to seek at least $300,000 in damages if the boy is allowed to attend school and a student or teacher contracts AIDS.
To date, only a handful of districts have had to deal with the question of how and where to educate students who have AIDS. But some pediatric experts predict that by the mid-1990's thousands of children may have contracted the fatal disease, forcing many other school officials to address these issues.
In response to calls from states and school districts seeking information on how to handle AIDS cases, the federal Centers for Disease Control are working on guidelines, to be published in early fall. According to one pediatric researcher, the guidelines will advise school officials to place children with AIDS in regular classrooms.
To date, statistical evidence indicates that in the United States AIDS most often affects homosexual men, hemophiliacs, drug users, and Haitian immigrants. The Atlanta-based CDC has reported 149 cases in children since 1981; 103 of the children have died.
The illness is thought to be transmitted from infected mothers to children through the birth canal. Children who have had AIDS from birth are usually not physically able to attend school, according to Shirley A. Barth, a spokesman for the public-health service of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The HHS position on school attendance, however, is that AIDS victims that physicians think will benefit from schooling should be allowed to attend.
Ms. Barth said that "any isolation you see is for the benefit of the patient," who has a substantially weakened immune system and is susceptible to other illnesses.
At least four states have distributed nonbinding advisory guidelines on educating AIDS-afflicted youths.
In California, where education officials think children with AIDS should attend school, the department of education is working to adapt guidelines on dealing with "blood spills" by hemophiliacs to include possible similar occurrences involving students with AIDS.
In another development, the Los Angeles City Council, on Aug. 14, adopted an ordinance barring discrimination against AIDS victims. The ordinance, which is expected to be signed by Mayor Tom Bradley, would prohibit schools from excluding pupils with AIDS or their siblings.
In Florida, state health officials in June 1984 recommended that children with AIDS or related diseases be allowed to attend school. (See Education Week, Sept. 19, 1984.)
In Connecticut, guidelines distributed last March recommend that most children with AIDS be allowed to attend school with the approval of a physician. Children with hygiene or behavioral problems that increase the risk of contamination should be offered an appropriate alternative education, such as home schooling.
Education officials in Indiana this month distributed guidelines based on state laws and recommendations developed by the state board of health, which advise districts that they may exclude a child from school if he or she has a communicable disease that poses a threat to the health and safety of the community.
That exclusion, however, is subject to due process. Under the guidelines, home education is defined as the equivalent of attending school.
In Indiana, Charles R. Vaughan, the lawyer representing 13-year-old Ryan White of Kokomo, has filed suit in federal court seeking to allow the boy to return to school. Ryan contracted AIDS in December through a blood-clotting agent used to control his hemophilia. In July, James O. Smith, superintendent of the Western Middle Corporation district, barred him from attending the Western Middle School.
"The superintendent of schools made a decision that he had a communicable disease and that he shouldn't be admitted," said Jerry Angel, the district's legal counsel.
Mr. Angel said Ryan had been absent from school for seven months of the previous school year because of his illness. He added that an Indianapolis television station reported last Wednesday that the boy had been admitted to Riley Hospital, a children's facility in the city, that day.
The district's presumption, Mr. Angel explained, is that it is too risky to expose other students and teachers to the boy. "He has a history of having unstoppable nosebleeds in class," the lawyer said.
The suit, which was scheduled to be heard last Friday by U.S. District Judge James Noland, charges that Ryan's 14th Amendment right of equal protection under the law has been violated. Named in the suit are the district, Mr. Smith, and the seven-member school board.
The boy's lawyer, Mr. Vaughan, plans to base his arguments on the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504. "I don't think there's any question that he's a handicapped child," he said. "The rehabilitation act has said that separate but equal isn't good enough; the environment is important."
He will also stress the fact, he said, that the state health board, believing Ryan poses no health hazard, has recommended that he be permitted to return to classes when school begins on Aug. 26.
But John Wood, the Kokomo lawyer who helped organize the 300 parents, expressed concern that neither the state nor the local health board has notified the district in writing that Ryan should be allowed to attend school.
Mr. Wood, whose wife teaches in Ryan's school and whose children attend school in the district, explained that under Indiana law, a teacher or administrator is required to send home a student with a communicable disease, and the student may not return until the school receives written notice from the proper health authorities. It is because such notification has not been sent that local parents have moved to block the boy's return, he said.
Wade Parks, professor of pediatrics at the University of Miami's school of medicine and a leading research authority on pediatric AIDS, said the suit represents an opportunity to educate the public about the rights of children who are AIDS victims.
"I think there's abundant case law under the handicapped act which provides that exceptional children, which a child with AIDS would qualify as, are entitled to a minimally restricted educational experience,'' he said.
"There is no justification for quarantine or isolation" of children with AIDS, in Dr. Parks' view, because there is little risk of transmitting the disease through other than sexual means. It is the fear of the unknown, he said, that is prompting educators to bar the children from school.
"The greater risk is ostracism and treating them as lepers," he said.
The Indiana suit is significant, Dr. Parks said, because in the next 10 years "thousands of children" may contract the disease.
Dr. Parks urged that school boards, parent-teacher organizations, and the entire education community become more informed about the disease.