Some Wisconsin Pupils Could Face HIV Testing

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Wisconsin has enacted what appears to be the nation’s first law requiring students to be tested for HIV if teachers or other school employees can prove they were significantly exposed to the students’ blood while on the job.

The law, which critics view as an unwarranted intrusion on privacy, gives employees of Wisconsin public and private schools the same rights as emergency personnel, medical workers, correctional officers, and group-home workers to require blood tests under comparable circumstances.

"It’s a sensible protection for the men and women who are responsible for educating our kids, similar to the protections that health-care workers enjoy," said Dan Leistikow, a spokesman for Gov. James E. Doyle, a Democrat, who signed the measure on April 16.

Gov. James. E. Doyle

"I think people recognize this is in the interest of public health and protecting teachers."

State Sen. Carol A. Roessler, a Republican and the chief sponsor of the legislation, said it is "common sense" and is not likely to be challenged in court.

"All we’re doing is adding teachers and school personnel to existing protocol," she said. "The behaviors of some students can very much so put teachers and other personnel and other students at risk."

Some groups and activists say the law is not needed.

"The extremely low risk of occupational HIV transmission in most professional settings, combined with the burdens associated with compulsory HIV testing make this legislation unnecessary and unreasonable," wrote the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin Inc., in a statement opposing the legislation.

Resource-center officials also believe that testing the person who came in contact with the blood is the only foolproof way to determine if a person was infected, added Kate Venne, the group’s spokeswoman. She called the new law "a safety net full of holes."

Larry Dupuis, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Wisconsin office, said his group had also opposed the measure on the grounds of medical privacy. Paul Cates, the director of public education for the ACLU’s HIV/AIDS Project, based in New York City, said his office did not know of any other measures that gave school officials such rights.

The main state teachers’ union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, an affiliate of the National Education Association, supported the measure.

Several other education groups, including the Association of Wisconsin School Administrators, the Wisconsin School Boards Association, and the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators, did not take a position on the bill, according to the Wisconsin Ethics Board, the state’s panel that oversees lobbyists and sets ethical codes.

The new law does not cover students who have been exposed to the blood of other students and who want to seek blood tests from those students.

Speaking Out

The momentum for the law began a few years ago, following a classroom incident.

In 2001, a student in Cheryl L. Hartman’s special education classroom lost control of his temper and became violent. After he broke a window with a desk, leaving a deep cut in his arm, blood splattered across the room, onto students and desks, and directly into the teacher’s eye.

Ms. Hartman, whose best friend had recently died as a result of AIDS, immediately visited her doctor and received the requisite blood tests for HIV—the virus that causes AIDS—and for hepatitis.

But she also wanted the student’s blood to be tested for HIV, hepatitis, and other illnesses. The parents of the teenager refused. A month later, Ms. Hartman won a court order to force him to submit to a blood test.

Ms. Hartman, who works in a center for emotionally and behaviorally disturbed students in Oshkosh, Wis., did not contract any diseases from the incident. Still, she said, it was an emotional and frustrating experience that prompted her to seek a change in state law.

‘Victim’s Right’

In particular, she said last week, it was frustrating that teachers, who are often on the front lines when students are injured or violent, were not covered under the existing blood-testing law.

"It was appalling to find out that if I had worked in a group home, I would have been covered, but because I was his teacher, I wasn’t," she said.

Worst of all, Ms. Hartman said, she had to speak out, during legislative hearings, against the views of the AIDS resource center that had helped her friend receive treatment.

"I had watched my best friend die of AIDS," she said. "I probably knew more in the school than anybody else about what that meant [when the blood] hit that mucous membrane."

To force a student to be tested under the new law, school employees must meet some significant criteria.

First, they must prove that they had taken precautions to the extent possible, such as using protective gloves or eyewear, against exposure at the time of the contact. They must also produce a letter from a physician stating that they were significantly exposed, and must submit to an HIV test themselves.

Sen. Roessler said the law was designed so that teachers and other school staff members could not force students to be tested without justifiable cause.

"It’s a very, very, very serious matter, and of course not to be taken lightly when this request is made," she said. "But it’s the victim’s right to know if they’ve been exposed, and what is the nature of that exposure."

Proponents say they expect the law to be used only in rare cases, but argue that it is necessary to have such a measure on the books.

"I’ll be amazed if this law gets used three to four times a year," Ms. Hartman said.

Vol. 23, Issue 33, Pages 1, 25

Published in Print: April 28, 2004, as Some Wisconsin Pupils Could Face HIV Testing
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