Tex. Districts Confront Media Scrutiny After Disclosure of H.I.V. Test Results

By Peter Schmidt — February 26, 1992 4 min read

Several rural school districts in northeast Texas have been besieged by both rumors and reporters following the announcement that 6 of 197 students in one area high school tested positive for the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS.

School operations have been disrupted by the media, and several students infected with the virus reportedly have stopped attending counseling sessions for fear that their identities would be discovered, school officials said last week.

School officials also canceled two junior-varsity basketball games involving Rivercrest High School in Bogata, which the six students attend, because members of the opposing teams feared infection.

Several local officials questioned the validity of the H.I.V. test results, while state and national AIDS experts strongly questioned the propriety of releasing such results for a population as small and well-defined as that of a high school.

A spokesman for the Texas Department of Health, which last week was working to verify a local agency’s H.I.V. test findings for Rivercrest and other area schools, said his agency would not be able to report its own results if they would confirm or deny the test results for a specific school.

“At this point, we really don’t know what, if any, type of statement we will be able to make,” said the spokesman, Doug McBride.

The incident “casts a shadow or a black eye on our district and the surrounding areas,” said David G. Anthony, the superintendent of the nearby Mount Pleasant Independent School District, which also had its figures on H.I.V. infection made public.

Counselor’s Disclosure

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control, which began recording diagnoses of AIDS in 1984, reports a total of 206,392 cases of the disease; children under age 13 accounted for 2,347 cases, and youths ages 13 to 19 accounted for 789 cases.

The C.D.C. releases AIDS statistics for states and large metropolitan areas, and state agencies often release such statistics for metropolitan areas or counties. Rates of H.I.V. infection Or active AIDS cases for smaller populations seldom are made public, however, unless the identity and precise location of the population is carefully masked, exports on the disease said last week.

Last October, however, Dona K. Spence, an AIDS counselor for the Ark-Tex Council of Governments, a regional agency, discussed the presence of H.I.V.-positive students at Rivercrest High and other nearby schools in a talk to local community members. Her findings were printed in a local newspaper, the Mount Pleasant Daily Tribune, but drew little attention at the time.

In December, the figures were presented to the beard of the TalcoBogata Consolidated School District, which includes Rivercrest High. District officials then decided they needed to make the public and students more aware of the risk of disease, said Freddy L. Wade, the district’s superintendent.

“We decided we would do it in an honest, straightforward way and just share with students what we had been told,” Mr. Wade said.

District officials told teachers and students, students told their parents, and, as the news spread to other communities, “rumors took over, and the rumors were that we had infected people on our extracurricular teams,” Mr. Wade said.

As a result, the opposing schools canceled the basketball games against Rivercrest on Jan. 31 and Feb. 7. District officials then met with superintendents of neighboring districts to tell them that none of the infected students participated in extracurricular activities, Mr. Wade said.

‘Breach of Confidentiality’

On Feb. 12, Mr. Wade said, theDallas Morning News called to check on a false tip that Rivercrest’s varsity team was going to the playoffs as a result of forfeitures by teams that feared exposure to H.I.V. Instead, the paper published a story on the H.I.V. Cases in local schools that was picked up by the newswire services.

The next day, reporters from several large dailies, the wire services, and major television networks descended on the communities and their schools.

The resulting news reports at first played up on the fact that figures for a specific school showed that AIDS had come to rural America, and later explored allegations that the statistics were false.

Mr. Wade last week defended his handling of the issue, saying, “I don’t think any of us feel badly about what we have done.” He added that students in his district appear to have handled the issue maturely, without trying to identify those infected.

But Donna Futterman, the medical director of the nationally known adolescent-AIDS program at the Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, called the incident “a grave breaching of important confidentiality rights” and “a real unfairness for the people involved.”

“It is a strong principle of epidemiology that, whatever the data is, it cannot be traceable,” Dr. Futterman said. “In a Texas town that size, it is not going to be that hard to find out who some of these kids are.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 26, 1992 edition of Education Week as Tex. Districts Confront Media Scrutiny After Disclosure of H.I.V. Test Results