Pea Ridge's HIV issue resolved, superintendent says. But Disability Rights group still wants answers | Arkansas Blog

Pea Ridge's HIV issue resolved, superintendent says. But Disability Rights group still wants answers

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I wrote Rick Neal, superintendent of the Pea Ridge School District, for more information about the district's decision to bar attendance of three students until they'd been tested for HIV. The decision has stirred up worldwide interest because most believed the Ryan White case and subsequent federal law made it impossible to bar students from public schools even if they are HIV positive. The three children are in foster care; two reportedly have disabilities.

I asked Neal for more information generally and also for copies of the correspondence with the district's legal advisor, who reportedly said the district was within its rights in barring admission until an HIV test.

RICK NEAL: HIV issue 'resolved.'
  • RICK NEAL: HIV issue 'resolved.'
I got a brief note just now from Neal, that said in its entirety:

I'm out of my office the [sic] late Thursday I will forward your request to my attorney. FYI , the students are back in school today. The issue has been resolved. I'll be glad to send you what you need when I return.

I'm trying to get more information.

The district had further muddied the waters yesterday with a prepared statement reported by the Daily Mail. The statement confirmed that it had required HIV testing of some students and continued:

'This rare requirement is due to certain actions and behaviors that place students and staff at risk. The district respects the privacy and confidentiality of all students.

'It is very unfortunate that information regarding this situation is being released by outside organizations.

'Our goal is to provide the best education for every student, including those in questions, in a responsible, respectful and confidential manner."

Tom Masseau of the Disability Rights Center, which has vigorously advocated the children's right to attend school without need for testing, said he had learned the children were allowed to attend school today. Previously, the district had said the children couldn't attend without providing results, But he said that didn't end the center's concerns.

He said there's no need for testing because the children must be provided a free and appropriate education whether HIV positive or not. He said the center is concerned with singling out children for testing, particularly children with disabilities, and with the possibility the results could become public. He didn't know if the return of the children meant they had provided test results. The school district letter did not say the students had to test negative for HIV to return, only that they had to be tested, but Masseau said that's of no consquence.

"I want to know the real reason they were tested," he said. He said districts sometimes raise the possibility of disruptive behavior — and the possibility that students could become scratched in a fight, for example — as a pretext to force students into homebound schooling. "To me it's just mind-boggling that we're going down this road."

He said all districts have a range of precautionary responses for both teachers and students in all types of situations, including fights. To suggest these students should be tested is to suggest all students and teachers should be tested against the possibility they might get in a scrape. He said the science is well-known, in any case, that the chances of transmission of HIV is possible from such contact are extremely small.

Masseau said the center would remain involved because it doesn't want to see children stigmatized, they challenge the legality of requiring testing and they want to be sure the children are receiving free and appropriate education.

I've tried to reach the district's lawyer, Vicki Vasser with Matthews, Campbell, Rhoads, McClure and Thompson in Rogers, about the issue, but have so far been unsuccessful.

A variety of calls to people familiar with the issue adds to the shape of the story as hinted at in the school district statement yesterday. The essence is that some of the children have sometimes presented behavioral issues. When the district learned that the family included relatives with HIV, they wanted to know about the children to provide what they call "appropriate, individualized" education plans that also protect children and staff. The Department of Human Services, which has custody of the children, provided the requested information so the children could return to school. In theory, the results of their tests will be known only to the people who develop and deliver their education.

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