By Terry Dean
State and local health agencies in Illinois are no longer required to report a student's HIV status to schools, according to legislation recently signed by Gov. Pat Quinn.
The measure, which Quinn signed last month, repeals a 20-year-old state requirement mandating the Illinois Department of Public Health to report a student's HIV status to school principals. Local health departments were also required to do so.
Introduced in 2008 by state Rep. LaShawn Ford (8th), the General Assembly approved the bill last spring. Ford says the new law is meant to protect students' privacy and prevent them from being discriminated against. Ford urges anyone, including youth, to get tested. But mandating the public disclosure of a student's status, he insists, can do more harm than good.
"We shouldn't be treating students differently because they're HIV-positive," he said. "If their classmates know [someone has] HIV, they may act differently toward [him or her]. And we don't want school officials treating them differently either."
The new law applies to elementary and high schools. Ford, whose district includes Austin and Oak Park, said he heard concerns about discrimination of HIV-positive students in Austin, which prompted him to introduce House Bill 61.
At the time, some school officials opposed his bill, saying they wanted to know a student's status. With greater understanding of how HIV is transmitted, Ford said those principals now support his legislation.
Ford insists it should be up to students to disclose their status. He hopes parents would protect their child's privacy and not disclose it to the school. Teaching "universal safety measures and precautions" — such as safe sex or abstinence — should be the focus, Ford said.
Districts 200 and 97 both currently practice universal precautions, said spokespersons for each school district. Karin Sullivan, communications director for D200, said the district does not provide information on known HIV cases at the school. D97's Chris Jasculca said the elementary school district will support any parent who chooses to disclose information about their child's health.
Illinois was the only state requiring school principals to be notified under the old law, said Colleen Boraca, supervising attorney with AIDS Legal Council of Chicago, which represents individuals with HIV.
Five other states required that only the superintendent be notified. Boraca's organization worked with Ford to revise Illinois' law. The council also heard complaints from parents about their kids being discriminated against, including being asked to use separate bathrooms in their schools.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also promotes using universal safety precautions.
Nationwide, about 879,000 people are living with HIV, according to the CDC's annual HIV Surveillance Report. In 2010, there were 2,850 reported cases of children 13 years and under living with HIV. Among children between 13 and 14, there were 1,169 living with HIV; for 15- to 19-year-olds, it was about 7,100.
In 2011, 165 cases involving newly-diagnosed children 13 and under were reported to the CDC. Among 13- to 14-year-olds, 44 were diagnosed that year, and about 1,930 among 15- to 19-year-olds.
Mandating the public disclosure of a student's HIV status, Boraca said, can actually deter kids from getting tested.
"You want to get as many kids as possible tested and this law was a hindrance to that," she said. "What we found is that parents want to tell the school but on their own terms. We also saw that once a student knew their status was going to be reported to their principal, they didn't want to get tested."