Battles Over AIDS Patients' Rights in Classrooms Intensify

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

The opening of school has intensified battles being waged in a handful of communities around the country over the rights of aids victims in the classroom.

In one of the first cases to involve a teacher with the fatal disease, a federal court is set to decide this month whether Vincent Chalk, a special-education teacher in Orange County, Calif., should be allowed to continue teaching.

And, in Arcadia, Fla., the family of three young brothers who were exposed to the aids virus while being treated for hemophilia has been forced to leave the community after fire gutted their home. The incident came less than a week after a federal court order had enabled the boys to attend school there, prompting a boycott by other students.

Fear of the disease has also polarized communities in Tennessee, Illinois, and other parts of Florida, where children who either have the disease or, like the Ray brothers, simply test positive for the aids virus are fighting for their right to attend school.

Meanwile, in sharp contrast to those controversies, 15-year-old Ryan White--the Indiana aids patient who once faced similar community hostility and lawsuits--peacefully began classes last week in a new school in a new town.

Orange County Controversy

Because few disputes involving teachers with acquired immune deficiency syndrome have reached the courts, the California case is being closely watched by educators.

"Typically, the teacher and the school district work out an accommodation that is agreeable," said Michael Simpson, staff counsel for the National Education Association. "The teacher might not want to4teach or might want to retire on disability."

"Judging from the way school districts are reacting to students with the disease, I think they will begin taking more actions against teachers," he said, even those who are not officially diagnosed as having aids.

The affluent Orange County district was previously involved in a much publicized case involving a student. Channon Phipps, a young hemophiliac, was barred from school after aids antibodies were found in his blood. But a superior-court judge last year ordered school officials to allow him to return to classes.

In Mr. Chalk's case, both he and school officials turned to the courts in August after they were unable to agree on whether he should teach his class this fall. The officials petitioned the Orange County Superior Court for a judgment on whether he has a right to teach; Mr. Chalk countersued in a Los Angeles federal court.

The disagreement came after Mr. Chalk, who is a teacher of hearing-impaired students in Irvine, refused to accept the school's proposal that he sit out the school year and work in an office writing grant proposals.

"Sending him home would be like being declared useless to the Eskimo band and being set adrift on an iceberg," said Marjorie Rushforth, the lawyer for the teacher. "He's a real human being and he wants to feel meaningful."

A county public-health officer last spring determined that Mr. Chalk posed no health threat to his students, she noted.

"Our concern is to be as compassionate as possible for aids victims, yet our first priority has got to be the welfare of the students and others who might come in contact with him," said Robert Peterson, county superintendent of schools.

He said a court order requiring the school to allow Mr. Chalk to teach would also protect the district from possible future lawsuits.

"If someone [in the school] came down with aids, from some unknown cause, they could immediately consider some kind of court action against us," he said.

The California case is also expected to be among the first to cite last year's U.S. Supreme Court ruling in School Board of Nassau County, Fla. v. Arline. (See Education Week, March 11, 1987.)

In that case, involving a Florida schoolteacher with tuberculosis, the Court ruled that school employees who have been significantly impaired by infectious diseases are entitled to protection under the federal law barring discrimination against the handicapped.

A Los Angeles federal judge was scheduled to hear Mr. Chalk's petition on Sept. 8, two days before the start of school in Orange County.

'No Longer Our Home'

In the Florida controversy, police last Tuesday said they were still investigating the cause of the fire that left the family of Clifford and Louise Ray homeless. The Rays receivedel15ldeath threats after a federal judge in Tampa determined that their three sons--Richard, 10, Randy, 9, and Robert, 8--have a right to be educated alongside their peers in rural Arcadia.

The brothers, who are all hemophiliacs, tested positive for the aids virus a year ago, after they had been given a blood byproduct used to induce clotting.

None has shown any signs of the disease.

On Aug. 24, the brothers' first day of classes at Memorial Elementary School, a boycott by frightened parents kept more than half of the student body at home.

According to Larry Browning, superintendent of the DeSoto County school district, only 337 pupils attended, out of an expected enrollment of 632.

Enrollment increased the following day to 380, and Mr. Browning was predicting that more students would return, once the public uproar had died down.

But the fire prompted the Rays--who were not at home when the blaze broke out--to leave the community of 10,000.

"Arcadia is no longer our home," Ms. Ray told reporters during a tearful press conference the following morning.

More Developments

Among other, similar controversies that are dividing school communities this fall:

A kindergarten student who tested positive for the virus has been barred from starting school with his peers in Manatee County, Fla., a community about 50 miles from Arcadia. According to Gene Witt, superintendent of schools in that county, school officials decided to teach the child at home while they wait for a state hearing officer to rule on the matter.

Tennessee health officials said parents in that state's Lake City community have threatened to boycott school if a young aids carrier is allowed to begin classes.

And the Belleville, Ind., school board voted on Aug. 25 to keep a student stricken with aids out of regular classes, according to the boy's lawyer.

Returning to Class

School officials in Cicero, Ind., credited "time and education" for Ryan White's tranquil return to school.

"We knew for four months that Ryan was coming and we had time to educate everyone about the disease," said Tony Cook, principal of Hamilton Heights High School, where Ryan is a freshman this year. "You couldn't have asked for a better opening than we had."

The Kokomo, Ind., youth, who is also a hemophiliac, was diagnosed as having aids in 1984. His plight drew national attention when he and his mother began a yearlong legal battle for the right to attend school in Kokomo. A year ago, he finally returned to classes at Kokomo's Western Middle School.

The family moved to nearby Cicero over the summer.

Vol. 07, Issue 01

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories