Staff Editorial: Pea Ridge School District receives well-deserved scorn
U.S. law protects people with disabilities from discrimination by public entities, but there are still cases when, through ignorance and prejudice, their civil rights are denied.
The Pea Ridge School District exemplified this bias when it banned three students from attending class until the students could prove their HIV status. When the district found that the mother of the students – siblings in foster care – was infected, its superintendent demanded that the children be tested. Although the students are back in class now, the action caused harm to both the children and the district.
The legality of the district’s decision is still being scrutinized. The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits public schools from discriminating against students with disabilities, which are defined as physical or mental impairments. Because HIV weakens the immune system, it is included in this definition. By banning the students based on their potential disability, the district may have violated the act.
Although the Department of Human Services said the district is entitled to information about the students’ health, the Disability Rights Center of Arkansas has already condemned the release of their test results. It is possible that other civil rights groups will advocate on the children’s’ behalf. Therefore, the district may face a legal battle because of its discriminatory actions.
The district may also have to fight a public relations battle. The incident has already been spread across the Internet and has gained nation-wide attention. Surely, the publicity will only harm the district’s reputation. It may even lower the opinions of parents who send their children to district schools. Some will certainly doubt the validity of the exclusion, and whether, if their children had a disability, the district would show the same prejudice.
In a letter to the children’s guardians, the district justified its actions by citing an Arkansas School Board Association policy that says children with communicable diseases should not attend class. Under that policy, however, HIV is not considered a communicable disease. This is because HIV generally does not spread through casual contact one would find in a normal classroom. Unlike the flu, people can not catch HIV simply by sitting next to or even touching someone who is infected.
Therefore, banning the children from class is absolutely needless. These students were not excluded for the protection of other students, but to appease the prejudices and misconceptions against HIV and people with the virus. It seems their ban was motivated by abhorrence and disgust, not good intentions.
Demanding test results was doubly needless because, even if the children tested positive, they would still be allowed to continue their education. Perhaps they should be tested to assess their health risks, but not so that the district can discriminate against them further. If the children were denied access to education because of a disability, it would demean the Americans with Disabilities Act. It would also force the foster parents to home-school the children or find another school for them to attend.
In addition, banning the children could also jeopardize their privacy rights. If a few people knew about the ban, word could spread about the reason for it. The gossip could lead to rumors that the children are definitely infected, even if they are not.
If they suspect the children have HIV, teachers and students might bully or isolate the students. Many people still harbor prejudices, fears and misconceptions about HIV. The children should not be subjected to public ridicule simply because they might have a disability. They never asked for HIV, and do not have much control over their HIV status. Moreover, any derision they face could degrade the students’ mental health and self-esteem.
The ban effectively ostracized the children. Basically, it told them that they are not fit to go to school or participate in normal childhood activities. In an effort to protect apparently “normal” children, the district told the children they were abnormal and unacceptable. Alienating these students may have damaged their sense of self-worth.
Furthermore, banning the students set a bad example for everyone within the district. It sent the message to staff, parents and other students that people with HIV are different and must be isolated and avoided. This further spreads misconceptions about HIV, which is dangerous, because it could make people who have the virus face more prejudice and discrimination.
In reality, the only thing that differentiates people who are HIV-positive from those who are HIV-negative is the virus itself. Banning the students until they were tested showed a belief to the opposite – that somehow people with HIV do not deserve basic rights like education. If the students tested positive, they would be able to study, play and do everything else that children do. The question is whether they would have been allowed to.