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Most Schools Delay Stands, Await More Data on AIDS

December 08, 1985|BOB WILLIAMS | Times Staff Writer

School systems in the South Bay report no cases of students or staff members with AIDS on their campuses, but one district is formulating a policy to deal with the problem if it arises.

Officials at several other districts say they are studying the emotionally charged issue.

Most districts, however, say they will await more conclusive information on the nature of the AIDS threat, if any, to school populations before taking steps to develop their own policies. Meanwhile, they are following guidelines offered by county schools Supt. Stuart E. Gothold.

In a letter in September, Gothold recommended a case-by-case approach to the "volatile issue" generally based on the special needs of a child afflicted with acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

Cites Medical Opinion

He noted that "the preponderance of medical opinion at this time" indicates that "in nearly all cases, children who have AIDS can safely attend school in a regular classroom situation without endangering other children."

Gothold advised the districts not to develop a formal policy because of the "constantly changing nature of information about AIDS and the differences in the specific needs" of the child, the parents and the school community.

Officials at the South Bay Union High School District, however, say they believe the issue should be confronted squarely in advance.

"If a case comes up in the future, we should have a policy in place that takes into account all the various concerns and responsibilities," said Hugh Cameron, the district's personnel director. "We should not be talking about individual personalities and trying to make decisions on that basis."

'Irrational Fears'

Uncertainties over how a district would respond to an AIDS case, he said, also tend to foster the "irrational fears" that have been criticized by some health authorities and officeholders.

Cameron said a lot of information will have to be collected before specific proposals can be presented to the school board, probably in March. But he said the "well-being of our students will be the primary consideration."

"Parents don't give us these kids to gamble with," he said. "If 50 doctors say there is no danger in having an AIDS victim on campus and two say there is a risk, then I think we should err on the side of caution."

Cameron said unions representing the district's teachers and other employees have been advised to start thinking about how an AIDS policy might be incorporated in their contracts.

Study to Begin

Lauren Sanders, executive director of South Bay Teachers United, said a union committee will "start wrestling with the problem" later this month. "At this early stage," he said, "we hardly know what factors we will be dealing with."

But, he added, the factors might include "finding a just way of balancing the well-being and interests of the group against those of a tiny minority" with AIDS and establishing guidelines for teachers who may be called upon to work with children who have AIDS.

Sanders' union also represents teachers in the Palos Verdes Peninsula, Centinela Valley, Redondo Beach and Manhattan Beach districts.

Protests from parents and some teachers in August led to a decision to tutor a 3-year-old AIDS victim at his Torrance home, rather than enroll him in county-operated special education classes at a public school in Redondo Beach.

Contagion Feared

Two teachers and about a dozen parents expressed concern that the deadly AIDS virus might be transmitted to others through the boy's saliva or other means. Most health authorities, including the federal Centers for Disease Control, say the virus can be transmitted only through sexual contact, pregnancy, blood transfusions and contaminated needles.

The malady devastates the body's normal disease-fighting mechanisms, leaving it open to a wide variety of rare diseases. There is no known cure.

Despite the medical advice, several districts in the state have announced policies that bar students with AIDS from school campuses. The latest are two districts in Stanislaus County, which adopted exclusionary policies last week.

"The information we have so far leaves most of us with more questions than answers," said Marilyn Corey, superintendent of the Hermosa Beach Elementary School District. "There's no doubt that schools can and should exclude students with communicable diseases.

"But just how do you apply that rule in the case of AIDS? How do you deal with the concerns of people who are not convinced that we have all the answers?"

Corey said her board will start "sorting through all these conflicting laws and responsibilities" at a meeting this week.

Low-Key Approach

Most other districts generally take a low-key approach to the AIDS dilemma.

"I think we'll play it by ear for awhile and see what develops," said John Conway, personnel director at the Torrance Unified School District. "The county is keeping us apprised of any new information."

Susan Lordi, a health services consultant with the county Office of Education, said the question of children with AIDS attending public schools is "almost entirely a non-issue in a practical sense.

"There is no pressure to admit children with AIDS to kindergarten classes, simply because there are no applicants," she said. "If children contract the disease in infancy, they die before they reach school age."

She said that, so far as she knows, there are only four or five older children with AIDS in the state attending public schools, "when their health permits," and none of them are in Los Angeles County.

However, despite the extreme rarity of cases, she added, "We must be as prepared as possible."

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