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Teacher's Exile by AIDS Looms as Test of Law

September 20, 1987|LANIE JONES | Times Staff Writer

'I don't feel this is a gay issue. It's really a human rights issue.'

--Vincent Chalk

His office for now is a sparsely furnished cubicle at the Orange County Department of Education in Costa Mesa.

And he has a temporary assignment: to study how students with serious hearing impairments adjust in high school.

But Vincent Chalk has some tight restrictions on how he does that study. If he administers any tests, "the test would have to be done by someone else with the students because I can't be with them," the 42-year-old special education teacher explained.

And if he needs student records, someone else will have to pick them up from his old school, University High School in Irvine, because Chalk is not allowed on campus.

It is frustrating and depressing, Chalk said. "Everything has to be done over the phone, through other people. . . . And my major interest is in teaching; it's not in paper work."

Described by teachers and administrators as a caring teacher who excels at communicating with deaf children, Chalk was transferred out of his classroom in August after county education officials discovered he had AIDS.

Suing to Get Job Back

But Chalk resisted. Raised as a Mormon in a small Kansas town, Chalk learned as a child to stand up for his beliefs. Now, insisting that he has fully recovered from a bout of pneumonia last winter, he is suing to get his job back.

The legal battle is shaping up as a test case over the civil rights of a teacher and the communicability of acquired immune deficiency syndrome. For on Sept. 9 a federal judge denied Chalk's request for a preliminary injunction to return him to teaching.

"If I put the fellow back in the classroom and I'm wrong, it could be a catastrophe," U.S. District Court Judge William P. Gray ruled, adding, "We simply don't know enough about AIDS to be absolutely certain" that children in Chalk's classroom would not risk infection.

Across the country--in Mansfield, Ohio, this August and Prince William County, Va., last February--several teachers have been transferred out of the classroom because they had AIDS or tested positive for the AIDS virus. (The deadly virus, which attacks a person's immune system, has resulted in 326 deaths in Orange County and 24,070 in the nation.)

But Chalk is believed to be the first teacher with AIDS to pursue a challenge in federal court. Supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, Chalk on Friday asked the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco to reinstate him.

His lawyer, Marjorie Rushforth, has said a victory in the federal courts would establish for the first time that AIDS victims are covered by the U.S. Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which forbids discrimination against people with handicaps by agencies that receive federal funds.

Meanwhile, Gray's ruling has broken step with previous federal court orders, which have allowed children exposed to the AIDS virus back into the classroom, attorneys for the county Department of Education said.

It also shocked teachers and administrators in the department's close-knit program for the hearing-impaired at University High and Venado Middle School in Irvine, who had believed Chalk would be quickly returned to teaching.

"Students are allowed in the classroom with AIDS. He should be in class," said Patti Headland-Wauson, an interpreter who has worked alongside Chalk for seven years and who started a defense fund for her friend.

Students Surprised

News of the ruling also surprised Chalk's students and their parents, some of whom considered Chalk, a handsome man, "the Tom Selleck" of the program.

Some had reservations about a teacher with AIDS returning to class. "If they can just give me a written guarantee. . . , " Carol Corlew said at a recent parents' meeting on AIDS education.

Other parents worried that Chalk's public acknowledgement of his homosexuality would be a problem for their children, said Carol Dickson Gold, president of last year's parent group for the 90 hearing-impaired children.

"But most of the parents want Vince to come back," Gold said.

Chalk is fluent in three systems of sign language: Signed English, Signed Exact English and American Sign Language, the language of the deaf that is said to be as complex as Chinese. He enabled hearing-impaired children who were mixed into classes with hearing youngsters to keep up, Gold and several other parents said. Such mixed classes are known as mainstreamed classes.

Added Gold: "When I told my daughter the judge decided that Vince shouldn't go back to the classroom, she was really saddened because he's such a good teacher. She said, 'He had the time for us. . . .' When I have trouble in a mainstreamed class, he's the bridge."

Alarmed Educators

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