Breaking step with past cases involving AIDS in the classroom, a federal judge Tuesday refused to halt the transfer of an AIDS-afflicted teacher of deaf children to a desk job outside the classroom.
"No one knows the full extent of the risk," U.S. District Judge William P. Gray said in denying Orange County teacher Vincent Chalk's request for a preliminary injunction returning him to the classroom.
"If I put the fellow back in the classroom and I'm wrong, it could well be catastrophic," the judge said.
The case is believed to be the first in the nation to address the issue of teachers with acquired immune deficiency syndrome and was unusual in light of recent court rulings that have upheld the rights of students who have been exposed to the AIDS virus to continue attending classes.
Gray, in a case that he said posed "one of the most difficult dilemmas that I've had since I've been on the bench," said Chalk does not have as much to lose as children with AIDS, who face the disruption of their education if removed from classes.
Chalk, 42, a teacher with the Orange County Education Department for the past 13 years, learned he was afflicted with the deadly disease early this year.
He filed suit in Los Angeles after the department ordered him transferred from his classroom duties teaching hearing impaired students at Venado Middle School and University High School in Irvine and offered him an office job writing grant proposals.
"I have to admit that I'm a little bit confused right now. I felt that we would win right off the bat," Chalk, a resident of Long Beach, said after the hearing.
Chalk said he will consider an immediate appeal of the judge's ruling and said he is not certain whether he will take the office job.
"My major interest is in teaching, it's not in paper work," he said. "I'm prepared to fight for what I think I have the right to do legally, within the law."
Chalk's lawsuit was filed under a federal law that makes it illegal for agencies receiving federal funding to discriminate against employees with handicaps if those employees are "otherwise qualified" for the job.
The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled that people with communicable diseases are covered by the statute, though that case involved a teacher with tuberculosis. The court has not specifically ruled on whether AIDS constitutes a similar handicap.
The status of the law has also been unsettled because all of the previous court orders allowing children back into the classroom involved students who had merely been exposed to the AIDS virus, not those who, like Chalk, have already exhibited symptoms of the disease, lawyers for the county said.
Gray's ruling was limited to Chalk's request for a preliminary injunction, in which plaintiffs must prove not only that they would be likely to win if the case were tried, but that they would suffer some irreparable harm if not granted some immediate relief.
Chalk's lawyers said they will attempt to schedule an immediate evidentiary hearing to allow Gray to hear testimony from medical experts, but if no such hearing is held, the case is expected to go to trial early next year.