An article in Saturday's Metro section incorrectly described the Whitman-Walker Clinic's role in helping Prince William County teacher Robert Rice, an AIDS patient. The clinic gave Rice financial assistance in a lawsuit, since withdrawy, that attempted to force school officials to let him return to the classroom. (Published 6/23/87)
It's been eight months since Robert Rice learned he has AIDS, and five months since he was told he could no longer teach in Prince William County schools.
In that time, he has filed a lawsuit in federal court in Alexandria in an attempt to return to the classroom, and has become a public figure throughout the region -- the subject of countless television reports and newspaper articles on the rights of people with acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
Last week Rice ended the fight to win back his position teaching mentally retarded youths, dropping his lawsuit against the Prince William school system. His new fight, he says, is to restore a semblance of the life he lost after the incurable virus threw his old routines into chaos.
"I'm just starting to accept it now," Rice, 31, said this week in an interview in his lawyer's office in Oakton. "My job more or less gave meaning to my life."
Rice's attorney, Kenneth Labowitz, said he feared that his client would have been fired if the litigation had continued. Labowitz said he reached an "implicit understanding" with school officials that Rice would remain on the payroll with full benefits, including health insurance. Rice has taught in Prince William for five years, and is paid about $23,500 annually.
Joseph Dyer, attorney for the Prince William School Board, stressed that no agreement -- implicit or otherwise -- had been made with Rice. Dyer said the school system's plans to keep Rice on paid administrative leave, reaffirmed in a vote last week, are no different than before Rice filed the suit in February.
The School Board retains the right to fire Rice, as it does all teachers who serve on annual contracts, Dyer said. As a practical matter, school officials said, that isn't likely to happen.
Many legal experts had expected Rice's suit to be an important test case on the issue of whether teachers with AIDS can be removed from the classroom. With what had promised to be a drawn-out and highly personal court battle no longer in the offing, Rice said his life is starting to take shape again.
"I'm the same person I was before my disease," he said. "The only things that have changed are my job and my sexuality. I'm no longer sexually active."
Rice, a short, softspoken man, gives little sign that he is afflicted with a wasting disease, one that has claimed 681 lives in the Washington area as of June 16, according to health officials. He had one bout of pneumonia last October, which led to his AIDS diagnosis; otherwise, he says, he has been well. He returned two weeks ago from a windsurfing vacation in Florida.
"I count myself very lucky in that it hasn't taken its toll," said Rice, who is undergoing treatment at the Whitman-Walker Clinic in the District. "I'm realistic in that I know it probably will."
Rice and Labowitz argued that as long as Rice was physically capable, he presented no health hazard to students and should be allowed to remain in the classroom. Some medical experts agreed, including Prince William County Health Director Jared A. Florance, who said that Rice did not pose a threat to students or other teachers.
Dyer said the school system's experts maintained it was possible that Rice could transmit the deadly virus to his students, who because of their mental disabilities require close supervision, including food preparation and help with personal hygiene.
Policies vary around Washington, as they do around the nation, on how school systems approach teachers and students with AIDS. Spokesmen for most local districts, including Prince William, say they seek medical advice and make decisions on a case-by-case basis.
Labowitz, who represents about 25 AIDS patients in the mid-Atlantic region, said that Prince William has taken the convenient route by paying Rice not to teach, and can now assuage parents and others who may have had unrealistic fears of Rice's transmitting the disease. But he said Prince William and other employers are skirting the reality of the widening AIDS epidemic.
"They were determined to keep Bobby Rice out of the classroom," Labowitz said. "You can't buy off a half-million people. It's economic suicide and it's irrational."
For Rice's part, he said dropping the trial spares him the anxiety of having the most intimate details of his life made public in court. He added that he was astonished at how thorough school investigators had been.
"They knew things about me that I had forgotten," Rice said. "They were asking questions like 'Why were your parents separated?' when he was in ninth grade."
Labowitz said he feared that the school system might have attempted to demonstrate that Rice was in violation of Virginia's sodomy laws. "We were going to have a trial on the kind of person he was," the attorney said.
Rice said he hopes to return to a job, and that in the meantime he keeps busy spending time with friends and raising money to combat AIDS. "I cannot let the disease mentally dominate me."