Educators Grapple With Fear, Misinformation About AIDS

Times Staff Writer

Public fear and misinformation about AIDS can seriously compound a school district's troubles when a case of the disease appears, administrators at a statewide convention in Anaheim were told Friday.

A panel of experts at a conference of the Assn. of California School Administrators said the few cases of acquired immune deficiency syndrome in California schools have been accompanied by "an epidemic of public hysteria."

Pat Howlett, the association's director of communications, said: "We know the symptoms of community fear are based on ignorance."

Persida Drakulich, director of school health programs for the state Department of Education, said the overwhelming majority of cases of AIDS in California have come from direct sexual contact between homosexual and bisexual males. She said that nationwide, 72% of AIDS cases have stemmed from homosexual contact, but in California, 93% of the cases stem from this form of sex.

The other methods of infection have been multiple use of an intravenous needle and transfusions of blood donated by AIDS sufferers.

Virus-tainted donated blood is no longer a problem, the panel agreed, because tests are now being made of all donated blood. But before such tests were available, some hemophiliac children received blood that contained AIDS antibodies.

One such case in Orange County involved Channon Phipps, 11, a hemophiliac from El Toro whose blood was found to contain AIDS antibodies. Dr. Tom Prendergast, epidemiologist for the Orange County Health Care Agency, said Channon was carefully examined by doctors to see if he might have other infections before he was cleared to go back to school last month. "He didn't have anything," Prendergast said. "He is a very healthy boy."

In contrast to the El Toro case, where no active AIDS virus was involved, a boy in the Carmel school district had an active case of AIDS. The boy is now hospitalized, according to Carmel Supt. Bob Infelise.

He said newspapers in the Carmel area knew about the case but agreed not to write about it. However, he said, someone anonymously tipped a nearby television station, and the station broke the story. "When that happened, all hell broke loose," Infelise said. "We were inundated by the news media."

Infelise said that newsmen converged on Carmel and stopped children going to and from school, asking them: "What do you think about having a student with AIDS?"

The experts also said school administrators must be concerned about protecting the privacy of students suffering from AIDS.

Prendergast did not mention Channon Phipps by name. The boy's identity became public last year after his guardian agreed to a television interview. A lawsuit on Channon's behalf also was filed by his guardian in Orange County Superior Court.

Orange County Superior Court Judge Harmon G. Scoville ultimately ruled that Channon "poses no danger" to other students and ordered him readmitted to regular classes in the Saddleback Valley Unified School District. David Girard, a Pleasant Hill attorney who was on the panel Friday, said the Channon Phipps case is the only legal precedent in California involving rights of AIDS victims to attend school.

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