The spotlight of publicity is shining harshly on this Corn Belt community, where the local school board has decided that Ryan White, a 13-year-old boy with a ruddy face and sandy hair, cannot join his classmates in the seventh grade because he has AIDS.
"This is the test case for the nation," said Charles Vaughan, the lawyer who is fighting the school system in federal court on behalf of Ryan and his family. It is apparently the first case of an AIDS victim trying to force a school system to admit him. "What happens here will set the trends across the country. But the people in this town just want to be afraid. They are running away from the facts," Vaughan said.
For more than a month, since School Superintendent J.O. Smith ruled that Ryan would endanger the health of the other students, Kokomo has been transfixed by the specter of this fatal disease. From the sprawling Delco Electronics factory where Ryan's mother, Jeanne, has worked as a stock chaser for 20 years, to the quiet farms that surround the city, the talk has turned to fear and AIDS.
Ryan's mother, the state health commisioner and experts at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have all asked the board to reconsider its decision. With other school systems across the country facing the same problem, a national debate has grown over the civil rights of a 70-pound boy whose biggest dream is to appear on television with Johnny Carson.
Despite recent guidelines issued by the state of Indiana and the CDC, the citizens of Kokomo, which calls itself the "City of Firsts," refuse to have Ryan in school. Several neighbors, upset that he retains his newspaper route, have canceled their subscriptions. People here say the fear is justified. They say the only thing everyone knows about AIDS is that it is fatal; for most parents that seems to be all the information they need.
"The big doctors and the government officials don't give a damn about our children," said Mitzie Johnson, who with her husband, Dave, organized a group of parents who are opposed to Ryan's attendance. "I don't want that boy hurt any more than he has been, but my daughter is never going to school with someone I know has AIDS."
At times the battle has become bitter, but the Whites insist that they will not back off. Ryan, a hemophiliac, was diagnosed as having acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) last December. He missed the rest of the school year, but his condition has improved and his doctors say it is not necessary for him to be isolated at home, surrounded by his G.I. Joe toys and elaborate globes, taking lessons by a telephone, when he could be at school.
"There is no reason why that boy should be sitting at home now," said Dr. Woodrow Myers, the state health commissioner, who before taking that job worked at San Fransisco General Hospital treating AIDS patients. "What parents want me to tell them is that there is absolutely no chance that they will ever get AIDS from Ryan White. It's not enough to tell them their kids have a better chance of being hit by a car on the way to school."
Because there is no evidence that school-aged children such as Ryan can spread the disease through casual contact, the CDC last week recommended that they be allowed to attend school. But the center also suggested that cases be examined on an individual basis.
For the Whites, sending Ryan back to school has become a matter of principle and of pride. Ryan reads about AIDS and he knows that it is fatal. But somehow he has managed to maintain a composure that most of the adults in town lost weeks ago. He wants his life to be as normal as possible, and because school has always been fun for him he wants to go back as soon as he can.
"This is the one thing he has always loved," said his mother, as she sat in the living room next to the Christmas tree she has left up ever since Ryan's condition improved right after he was diagnosed in December. "Because of his condition he could never play sports, he was always different. School was the place where he could feel comfortable, where he could achieve."
Ryan knows that going back to school would cause some problems for him as well as solve others. Teen-agers often repeat what they hear around the house. Ryan's 11-year-old sister has been harassed, and they have both lost friends over the past few months.
"I really want to go to school," he said. "I know some kids would be scared at first. But I'm okay. As long as I am not going to make anybody sick, I don't understand why everyone is so upset and worried."
The people of Kokomo feel sorry for Ryan White, but they insist on their right to protect their children as they see fit. Many of the parents of Kokomo say that by protecting their children they are being portrayed in the news media as a bunch of ignorant rednecks.
"They act like the kid has the flu," said Daniel Carter, the local school board chairman. "The truth is much more complicated than that. Every day they tell us something new about AIDS. The state board of health has completely ignored the needs and the troubles of Howard County's citizens. They can carry their tests out somewhere else."
Jeanne White acts as a cheerleader for her son. When her resolve weakens she presses on because Ryan wants her to. She says she is willing to do whatever is necessary to help him. If she has to move, she will.
"I walk into Denny's [restaurant] and people just whip around and stare like we're from Mars," she said. "Ryan is a sweet kid with a good heart. He likes the same things as other people. He shouldn't have to get an education over the phone. I won't let it happen. He's going to get what they owe him."