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Should I tell if I know someone that works in my school has HIV/aides?
Jan 29, 1999

I was told by a teacher last year that he had HIV. I didn't really think anything of it other than to sympathize with him. I did not tell my principal. I have been around people who are HIV positive and didn't think anything of it. It wasn't as though I was purposely - forethought - was keeeping information from my principal. Now my principal has found out the guy has aides. The principal approached me and asked me why I didn't tell him. I told the principal I didn't know the man had aides but I knew he was HIV positive last year. I am now being "disciplined" for my failure to tell my principal that a contagious disease was present in our school. What do you think? Putting my students in danger was the furthest thing from my mind, but that is what I'm being accused of by my principal. Was I legally obligated to tell?


Response from Ms. Breuer

Do you have a grievance procedure? Do you belong to a union? Is there a school administrator to whom you can go with a grievance about this discipline--and a warning about the school's liability? If the principal is acting according to your description, he is disciplining you for obeying the law. The logical extension of his behavior would be that he feels obligated to divulge the teacher's HIV status. If he does that, he opens up the school district to something it cannot afford. I used to be a public school teacher, and I know how draining a lawsuit against the district can be.

You have behaved appropriately by maintaining the teacher's confidentiality. Medical information in the workplace is confidential. You are legally obligated NOT to tell--and so is your principal. An HIV positive teacher puts no one at risk unless they are having sex with him or sharing needles with him. And I assume that neither activity would be at the urging of the school district. Urge your principal to look up a court case called "Chalk v. Orange County Board of Education." Mr. Chalk has already suffered through this situation, and he won. So would your colleague if the principal tells anyone about his HIV status and he suffers any discrimination as a result of it. The majority of HIV-related lawsuits in this country concern disclosure without permission, and in them, the plaintiff invariably wins.

You have put no student in danger. Your principal, however, puts the district in danger because he knows so little about HIV. You and your colleagues should be receiving up-to-date first aid training so that you can respond safely when anyone is injured and bleeds. No one in this country has yet acquired HIV infection from doing first aid on an HIV positive person, but hepatitis B and C have been transmitted that way. Does anyone at your school have either of those? No one knows. You should also be receiving reliable HIV education and making it a priority to pass along that information to students in a way that makes it possible for them to apply it to their own decision-making. Did you know that women and adolescents now have the highest rates of new HIV infections?

Encourage your principal to contact the local public health department to learn more about disclosing any health condition at school. He's on thin ice.

p.s. Although I am not a lawyer, it appears to me that if your grievance procedure does not change the course of the principal's conduct, then you could seek advice from a lawyer about your coverage under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The act includes in its coverage persons "known to associate" with persons who have HIV. Because you are being disciplined for abiding by the terms of the act and of the constitutionally-protected right to privacy, you could well be under its protection.

Now, I am no fan of suing. Every lawsuit, in my opinion, is a failure to work out differences in a more reasonable, adult manner. But I do advise you to contact an HIV-knowledgeable attorney through your local AIDS service organization, or to seek advice from your local office of the EEOC. Sometimes events can be turned around simply by a letter from an attorney to the offending party. And you are suffering negative consequences at work--consequences that presumably end up in your personnel record--because you are doing the right thing. If you act, you could prevent devastating discrimination against your colleague with HIV or someone else with HIV in your workplace. Strength to you! Please write again to let me know how it's going.

Nancy Breuer

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