Imagine this all too common doomsday scenario of when you were young: The phone unexpectedly rings and your parents pick-up. On the other end is the harrowing voice of your school principal. Every young person has come to dread this very moment. Sweat pours down your face as you quickly make excuses and try to recall what you possibly could have done wrong at school. However this time there is a twist: You absolutely know you didn't do anything wrong. But when your parents' hang-up the phone, they now know you are HIV positive. Or they know you are gay.
While the rest of the United States has been caught-up in the story of the baby miraculously cured of their HIV in Mississippi, young Illinoisans living with HIV can begin to breathe somewhat easy that the preceding scenario could potentially never happen to them. Just recently, the Illinois House of Representatives passed a bill aimed at repealing sections of a law that allows school principals to report a student's HIV status, at their discretion.
According to a joint press release by the AIDS Foundation of Chicago and the AIDS Legal Council of Chicago, the controversial Illinois' Sexually Transmissible Disease Control Act mandates that when public health authorities receive a report of an HIV-positive student, the child's school principal must be notified. Armed with such a notification, a principal can then do what they want with such information at their own discretion. This includes sharing the child's status with school staff or the parents of the child. Illinois is the only state with such a law.
The principal reporting sections of the law has had effects on youth HIV testing in Illinois, discouraging vulnerable young people from ever getting tested with fear that a positive test would become known in a school environment. Newly released data from the CDC find that persons aged 13 to 24-years make up the second largest amount of new infections nationally. Young people must be a focus of public health authorities, but without exposing them to further vulnerability.
Representative La Shawn Ford's HB 61 is a step in the right direction. The bill aims to repeal the principal notification, and narrowly passed with a 60-55 vote in the Illinois House of Representatives. But the bill now faces a tall task of passing through the Illinois Senate, where it will be debated on the floor in late May 2013.
The 1987 Illinois law is among many aging HIV-related policies that are being debated on the floor of state governments at the moment. A measure recently passed by the Iowa House of Representatives seeks to lower penalties for HIV positive persons that did not disclose their status prior to sex.
Another eerily similar bill in Tennessee mimics the principal disclosure law of Illinois, but without the HIV. Rather, the revamped "Don't Say Gay Bill" is making its second round through the state legislature, after being squashed in 2012. This time the so-called improved bill allows school authorities to report a student's sexuality to parents, if they are perceived to be LGBTQ in school.
Unrestrained sharing of information on sexuality or even HIV to parents can put a child at serious risk of family rejection. Family rejection in turn places afflicted children at risk for homelessness, suicide, depression, substance use, and raises their vulnerability for HIV or other health conditions. A startling 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBTQ.
While these bills still remain up for debate in their respective state legislatures, these local stories are a call to public health that attention is needed to help protect young people who are already living with HIV or are vulnerable to infection. Advocates in each state continue to rally for attention these issues effecting large populations of youth, against a sample size of two cases of where HIV was cured. With new data about rising rates of HIV among youth, it's time for public health to focus on our most vulnerable resource, children. Let's ensure that no child's life is ever put at risk with one phone call from school.