Fairfax County School Superintendent Robert R. Spillane faced a torrent of criticism yesterday over his decision to remove a girl from kindergarten because she has AIDS and his remark that the "kid will be dead in a few months."
The county School Board scheduled a closed meeting Saturday morning after some members said they were unhappy at not having been briefed about the case. Calls from angry parents and others flooded some county offices, the superintendent was criticized by national and local PTA officials, and the Virginia affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union called for his resignation.
The 5-year-old girl, who enrolled in the school system in August, was removed from class in November for having AIDS. She is believed to have acquired the disease from a blood transfusion shortly after birth, according to her lawyers. The girl's mother filed suit in U.S. District Court Tuesday, alleging that the child's removal violated a federal law that prohibits discrimination against the handicapped.
The lawsuit prompted Spillane to remark Tuesday that the child would have a happier life if the case were settled peacefully out of court. "This kid will be dead in a few months," Spillane said. "What's the point of the lawyer?"
Several members of the School Board and county Board of Supervisors said they were flooded with calls from parents and others complaining about the superintendent's comment, which many termed insensitive. "I think I've had more calls on this than on any other one issue," said Laura McDowall, a School Board member.
Two county supervisors -- Thomas M. Davis (R-Mason) and Kate Hanley (D-Providence) -- also termed Spillane's quoted remark insensitive. "If it reflects his attitude, it's an insensitive attitude," Hanley said, "and I hope the School Board will deal with it."
Spillane issued a statement yesterday that said: "I am dismayed by the remark attributed to me in The Washington Post and deeply regret the insensitivity it conveys . . . . I regret the implication that I have anything but concern and compassion for the child and the family and I apologize for any anguish which the story has caused the family or the community. The callousness of the printed remark reflects neither my personal feelings nor the position of the Fairfax County public schools."
McDowall and another board member, Anthony Cardinale, said they asked for a special School Board meeting, which by law must be called if at least two members request it. Both said they were unhappy that they had not been kept up to date on the case; Cardinale said he first learned of it from a radio news show Tuesday morning.
Reacting to criticism from the PTA and others that the School Board has no policy for dealing with AIDS cases, Chairwoman Mary E. Collier announced that she asked lawyers to draft a policy stating that the board handles each case individually "so it's clear that we don't make decisions before we get a medical evaluation of each child or employe." She said news accounts of Spillane's actions in the case left the opposite impression.
The remark was the latest in a string of controversial comments by Spillane during his 2 1/2-year tenure on the job of running the area's largest school system. This fall, for example, he wrote a letter to Rep. Stan Parris (R-Va.) accusing him of sloppy staff work after the congressman asked for help on a special education problem.
Spillane's comment followed a news conference Tuesday during which he said it was unlikely that a child with an active case of acquired immune deficiency syndrome would be allowed to remain in a regular classroom because of risks to other children from the fatal disease. Spillane said guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control stating that most AIDS victims could attend school were outdated.
Spillane said a three-member review panel -- including a school system official, school system lawyer and Dr. Fred Payne, assistant county health director -- would meet to hear medical evidence and recommend to him whether the child should be permanently expelled. Expulsion requires a School Board vote.
The meeting of a school system review board that is to recommend final action to Spillane was rescheduled yesterday, and is to be held today instead of the originally announced Dec. 30 date. "Do you think that's a product of the litigation or what?" said Kenneth Labowitz, a lawyer for the mother.
In an interview yesterday evening on WRC-TV (Channel 4), Spillane elaborated: "I said the unfortunate thing about this poor child, something to that characteristic, is that this is a terminal case and that what we ought to be doing is looking at how we could make this most appropriate and better for this youngster in the next several months, rather than fighting out in court something that hasn't even taken place."
Spillane's comments about the child and the school system's response to the case provoked a call for his resignation from the Virginia ACLU, whose director, Chann Kendrick, said the superintendent's "reaction is one that is inhumane, unconstitutional, insensitive and leads to tragic consequences."
Arnold Fege, director of government relations for the national PTA, said Spillane's remark is "reprehensible" and that the superintendent should not be drawing conclusions about the child's case before the review board makes its recommendation to him. In contrast to Spillane's position that the state contagious-disease law bans children with AIDS from school, Fege said the national PTA recommends that most AIDS victims be allowed to attend public classrooms.
Lawyer Frank Feibelman, who is cocounsel for the mother, said Spillane's comment is "in extremely poor taste . . . . If the child was in such ill health that the child was going to die within a couple of months, she would not be able to attend school and I would not have filed suit."
The president of the county Council of PTAs, Kevin Bell, said if the School Board had adopted a formal policy on handling AIDS cases, as the PTA requested, "this never would have happened."
The Fairfax case is the fifth such federal lawsuit in the nation, according to Labowitz. In the other four cases, federal judges ordered the children returned to school.