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Orange County Teacher Wins AIDS Appeal

November 19, 1987|JANE APPLEGATE and BILL BILLITER | Times Staff Writers

An Orange County teacher with AIDS, barred from his classroom by school officials, will be returning to work immediately under an order issued Wednesday by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

After learning about the court's ruling, Orange County Supt. of Schools Robert Peterson said Vincent Chalk may resume his teaching duties as soon as he can.

"We want him back," Peterson said. "We certainly had no animosity or lack of compassion for Mr. Chalk. He is a fine teacher."

Paul L. Hoffman, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney in Los Angeles who represented Chalk, called Wednesday's decision "probably the most important AIDS case in the country because it is the first appellate ruling."

Widespread Effects

Hoffman said the court's decision will affect hundreds of thousands of teachers, hospital workers and others across the country because states usually take their lead from federal decisions on issues like this.

"It sends an absolutely clear message to every recipient of federal funds that they are not entitled to exclude people with AIDS," he said.

Supt. Peterson said he expects no trouble from parents of the hearing-impaired children in Chalk's classes because many of the parents have expressed support for Chalk during his legal battle.

"He is a very good teacher, and the parents of the students he teaches like him very much," Peterson said.

Chalk, reached at his parents' home in New Mexico, said he was "real happy with the decision.

"I'm excited, I can't wait to go back," said Chalk.

He said he is "feeling fine" and ready to resume his duties as regional occupational program coordinator for deaf junior high and high school students. Chalk, 42, had been teaching about 30 students at two schools in Irvine--University High and Venado Middle School.

Since school began in September, Chalk has been assigned to a desk job in the department's headquarters and was forbidden to contact his students.

He won the right to return to the classroom after the three-judge appellate panel unanimously ruled in his favor.

Wednesday's order states: "The casual contact incident to the performance of his teaching duties in the classroom presents no significant risk of harm to others, and that although handicapped, because of AIDS, appellant (Chalk) is otherwise qualified to perform his job."

Education Department attorneys had argued before the court that Chalk posed a potential risk to his students because physicians do not fully understand how AIDS is transmitted.

The court also said preventing Chalk from resuming his "classroom occupation subjects him to irreparable injury."

At issue was whether a 1973 federal law that protects handicapped workers from discrimination also protects people with acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

In March, the U.S. Supreme Court found that a Florida teacher with tuberculosis was covered as long as she did not pose a "significant risk" to others. The court also said the risk must be based on "medically sound judgments." Although AIDS was not mentioned specifically, many attorneys believe that the ruling applied to people with AIDS and other ailments.

Chalk's legal battle began in August, when the Orange County Department of Education filed a suit against him in Orange County Superior Court seeking court advice on the AIDS matter. The case was later transferred to federal court in Los Angeles, where Chalk filed his suit to regain his teaching position.

Original Judge Out of Town

U.S. District Judge William P. Gray, who was handling Chalk's case and initially sided with the Education Department in barring Chalk from the classroom, is in New York City and could not be reached for comment.

Because Gray is not due back until next month, another federal judge will probably draft the order requiring the department to reinstate Chalk, the Education Department's attorney, Ronald D. Wenkart, said.

Teachers and parents contacted Wednesday were pleased with the court decision.

Patti Headland-Wauson, a teacher who worked with Chalk in helping the hearing-impaired students at Venado Middle School in Irvine, said she was "ecstatic" upon hearing that the court had ruled in favor of Chalk.

"I'm thrilled," said Headland-Wauson, who had headed a fund-raising drive in Orange County to help pay for Chalk's legal costs.

"I've been working on this since the day the suit was filed, and I have yet to get any negative feedback from parents or others," she said.

In fact, an Irvine parent of one of Chalk's students said Wednesday afternoon that she was "breaking into tears of happiness" over the news that Chalk would be returning to teaching.

"Wonderful, oh, it's wonderful," said Lynn Dickson Gold, mother of Erika, a 13-year-old hearing-impaired student.

Dickson Gold said she foresees no negative reaction when Chalk returns to his classroom.

"The only reaction is likely to be a party, and the only problem will be when we run out of hors d'oeuvres," she said.

Dickson Gold described Chalk as "a very personable, sensitive teacher--flexible, but demanding that the children perform."

She said students, including her daughter, love him and have missed him since the school year began in September.

"Parents are behind him because they see how much he gives to the kids," she said. Paula Morrow of Garden Grove, mother of Sunshine, 13, one of Chalk's students, said she and her hearing-impaired daughter were very happy that the court had ruled in favor of the teacher.

"Oh, I just think it's wonderful," she said. "When Sunshine came home this afternoon, I told her, and she said, 'Yeooow!' She and the other kids (taught by Chalk) are so excited he's coming back."

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