Chicago — The issue weighs on school officials around the country: What should be done with students with AIDS? In Arcadia, Fla., boycotts, bomb threats, and a suspicious fire sprang up after three brothers with AIDS antibodies started attending school. That resistance and fear has resonated in other communities - Manatee County, Fla., Lake City, Tenn., and Belleville, Ill. - where children with AIDS want to attend public schools.
But quietly and with little national fanfare, other communities have taken students with AIDS into their schools.
The wide range of response is a strong sign that many Americans are still uncertain how to deal with the disease and the tangle of moral and legal issues that accompany it.
``It's a tough situation, there's no question about that,'' says John Walters, assistant to US Secretary of Education William Bennett. The Reagan administration is wrestling with what regulatory guidelines it should establish on many AIDS-related issues, not just education, he adds.
In many areas, communities - particularly schools - are already facing the issue. ``The educational question was a lot of the impetus for states to get going on AIDS task forces,'' says Mona Rowe, senior researcher for the Intergovernmental Health Policy Project at George Washington University.
As of June, 39 states had adopted policies dealing with school access for AIDS students. Individual communities have drawn their own conclusions.
In Asheville, N.C., school officials have voted to allow a high school student to remain in school despite an AIDS-related illness. New York City has set up a special panel to decide on each AIDS student. In Wilmette, Ill., a student with AIDS is returning to Central Elementary School for a second year.
``It was treated privately, quietly here,'' says Paul Nilsen, the Wilmette school's principal. ``We've gotten responses from all over the country about how well we handled the situation.'' The staff and community were informed about the situation, but the child's identity was not revealed.
In Belleville, Ill., school officials had a different reaction. They voted last week to bar a primary-school student with AIDS. ``It is an emotionally laden issue,'' says Joseph Cipfl, District 118 superintendent. ``You're dealing with the lives of children and the implications are many.''
One issue is the right to schooling. The three Ray brothers in Arcadia, Fla.,were reinstalled in school under a court order. In Belleville, the girl with AIDS is being taught at home by a full-time teacher, but her parents plan to sue to get her readmitted if there's no compromise.
Another issue is safety. Although US Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and other medical authorities have repeatedly said that casual contact with AIDS patients is not dangerous, many parents remain skeptical. In addition, the disease itself is considered much more serious than carrying the AIDS antibodies or AIDS-related health problems.
``The initial reaction of almost everybody is a reasonable level of concern,'' says Marc Stine, principal of Central High School in Aurora, Colo. Last week, Mr. Stine was informed that a teen-age girl with the AIDS virus would be attending his school. ``When I first heard, I was scared flat out. I was scared not becuase of AIDS, but I wasn't sure if we could handle the situation.''
Aurora's response has been minimal so far. The girl is being taught at home until later this fall, when the school system will have completed a broad AIDS education program for teachers, parents, and students. Of 50 parent calls so far, all but two have been very supportive, Stine says, and there has been no negative student response.
``Isn't that wonderful?'' exults public school spokeswoman Susan Clark. ``I think it really makes all the difference if you're open.''
The ticklish question for communities is: How open? Some states have taken a restrictive approach to AIDS education. Indiana, for example, stipulates that schools teach that the best way to avoid AIDS is to refrain from sexual activity until a mutually faithful marriage. Other states, such as Oregon, do not direct how AIDS education should be carried out.
In California, a women's education and research group is up in arms over AIDS education literature that, it says, explicitly details and even encourages safer-sex techniques and homosexuality. ``It's absolute filth and smut and it's not acceptable,'' says Leslie Dutton, president of the American Association of Women. The group this week got the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to approve a resolution calling on the state to audit and review the contractors who publish the AIDS literature. The issue appears far from over.
``We cannot and should not dictate moral decisions to our communities,'' writes Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the National Education Association, in this month's issue of the group's magazine. ``For this reason, successful health education presupposes community agreement on both content and method.'' So far in America, that consensus hasn't appeared.