District Defends Sports Policy Assailed by ACLU
District officials in the Poudre school system in Fort Collins, Colo., say they weren't trying to exclude anyone when they adopted a policy that could keep students with AIDS or the virus that causes it from playing sports .
But some critics, including advocates for people with AIDS and the American Civil Liberties Union, are calling the move discriminatory.
"It was intended to be a cooperative policy," said Monte Peterson, an assistant superintendent in the 23,000-student district.
The policy requires students who want to take part in school athletics to have a physical exam, and it requires parents, medical professionals, and school officials to be involved in making a decision about whether or to what extent students who are found to have "serious communicable diseases" should participate in competition.
The policy, adopted earlier this month, also was intended to protect other students, particularly those who play contact sports, from being exposed to communicable diseases.
The rule was not written in response to any particular case, but instead was crafted as part of a "regular periodic review of district policies," and was recommended by the district's medical advisory board, Mr. Peterson said.
While the policy states that it can be applied to any student with a serious communicable disease, it names only AIDS and the virus that causes it, HIV.
And that is the part of the policy that some advocacy groups find troublesome.
"It's a throwback to a lot of misguided proposals of the early days of the epidemic," said Daniel Zingale, the executive director of AIDS Action, a Washington-based group.
Mr. Zingale argued that the Poudre board's policy was a substitute for more effective AIDS-prevention efforts, such as education programs.
"It leads them into thinking they have done something to help their young people when they really haven't," he said.
Christine Cimini, a lawyer with the ACLU of Colorado, said the policy was "presumptively illegal" under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination against someone with a disability, including HIV.
Ms. Cimini said it would not be out of the question for the ACLU to launch a legal challenge against the district without an injured party, though the civil liberties group would prefer to represent someone who has been harmed by the policy.
The lawyer also questioned the need for a policy that focuses on something that is unlikely to happen.
"There is no significant risk of transmission in a contact sport," Ms. Cimini said. "This is not a public policy based on facts. It's based on either prejudice or ignorance."
There are a few well-known cases of HIV-infected athletes competing after learning they had the virus.
For example, after retiring from basketball in 1991, former Los Angeles Laker Magic Johnson returned to the sport for part of the 1995-96 season.
And in 1988, Olympic gold medalist Greg Louganis had not disclosed that he had tested positive for HIV when he hit his head on a diving board and bled into the pool while taking part in the Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.
Brenda Z. Greene, who is in charge of HIV and AIDS education and school health programs at the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association, said she knows of no instances in which someone has become infected with the virus during school sports.
In college sports, which are governed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, decisions about whether an HIV-positive student can participate are based on that individual's health status. Simply having the virus "does not mandate removal from play," according to NCAA guidelines.
Some question whether the new rule will discourage students who might be at risk for contracting the virus from getting tested. Policies aimed at people with HIV and AIDS stigmatize their condition and "drive them underground," Mr. Zingale said.
Mr. Peterson, the assistant superintendent, said the district's intentions had been misinterpreted. "The whole emphasis has been on exclusion," he said, referring to media coverage of the policy.
Vol. 18, Issue 20, Page 6Published in Print: January 27, 1999, as District Defends Sports Policy Assailed by ACLU