Shoulders To Stand On EC August Issue 2016
This month Shoulders to Stand On will look at the impact of AIDS on students in American schools beginning with perhaps the most well known and publicized story of one such individual student, Ryan White. This author does not recall any student in Rochester, NY who was HIV positive being denied the right to attend school. If that is not the case this author would appreciate hearing from you at firstname.lastname@example.org. Overwhelming fear and a lack of knowledge are the birth place for many actions which prove in time to be unfounded and unnecessary.
On June 30, 1985, the Western School Corporation, a public school district which serves Russiaville, Alto, New London, West Middleton, and southwestern Kokomo in Howard County, Indiana, Superintendent James O. Smith banned Ryan White from re-admittance to school. Ryan, a hemophiliac patient, had been diagnosed with HIV in December, 1984 due to a blood transfusion received earlier in his illness. The White family filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the ban. The Whites initially filed suit in the U.S. District Court in Indianapolis. The court, however, declined to hear the case until administrative appeals had been resolved. On November 25, an Indiana Department of Education officer ruled that the school must follow the Indiana Board of Health guidelines and that White must be allowed to attend school.
The Indiana state health commissioner, Dr. Woodrow Myers, who had extensive experience treating AIDS patients in San Francisco, and the Centers for Disease Control both notified the board that White posed no risk to other students, but the school board and many parents ignored their statements. When White was finally readmitted in April, a group of families withdrew their children and started an alternative school. Threats of violence and lawsuits persisted. According to White’s mother, people on the street would often yell, “we know you’re queer” at Ryan. The editors and publishers of the Kokomo Tribune, which supported White both editorially and financially, were also ridiculed by members of the community and threatened with death for their actions.
White attended Western Middle School for eighth grade for the entire 1986–87 school year, but was deeply unhappy and had few friends. The school required him to eat with disposable utensils, use separate bathrooms, and waived his requirement to enroll in a gym class. Threats continued. When a bullet was fired through the Whites’ living room window (no one was home at the time), the family decided to leave Kokomo. After finishing the school year, his family moved to Cicero, Indiana, where White enrolled at Hamilton Heights High School, located in Arcadia, Indiana. On August 31, 1987, a “very nervous” White was greeted by school principal Tony Cook, school system superintendent Bob G. Carnal, and a handful of students who had been educated about AIDS and were unafraid to shake White’s hand.
On March 29, 1990, White entered Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis with a respiratory infection. As his condition deteriorated, he was placed on a ventilator and sedated. He was visited by Elton John and the hospital was deluged with calls from well-wishers. Ryan died on April 8, 1990.
In August, 1990, four months after White’s death, Congress enacted The Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act (often known simply as the Ryan White CARE Act), in his honor. The act is the United States’ largest federally funded program for people living with HIV/AIDS. The Ryan White CARE Act funds programs to improve availability of care for low-income, uninsured and under-insured victims of AIDS and their families
Ryan White was one of a handful of highly visible people with AIDS in the 1980s and early 1990s who helped change the public perception of the disease. White, along with actor Rock Hudson, was one of the earliest public faces of AIDS. Along with later public figures who became associated with HIV/AIDS, such as the Ray brothers, Magic Johnson, Arthur Ashe, The Brady Bunch‘s Robert Reed, Tim Richmond, Kimberly Bergalis, Elizabeth Glaser, Liberace and Freddie Mercury, White helped to increase public awareness that HIV/AIDS was a significant epidemic.
In 1992, Ryan’s mother founded the national nonprofit Ryan White Foundation. The foundation worked to increase awareness of HIV/AIDS-related issues, with a focus on hemophiliacs like Ryan White, and on families caring for relatives with the disease. The foundation was active throughout the 1990s, with donations reaching $300,000 a year in 1997. Between 1997 and 2000, however, AIDS donations declined nationwide by 21%, and the Ryan White Foundation saw its donation level drop to $100,000 a year. In 2000, White’s mother closed the foundation, and merged its remaining assets with AIDS Action, a larger charity. She became a spokeswoman for AIDS activism and continues to arrange speaking events through the site devoted to her son, ryanwhite.com. White’s high school, Hamilton Heights, has had a student-government sponsored annual Aids Walk, with proceeds going to a Ryan White Scholarship Fund.
Ryan White’s death inspired Elton John to create the Elton John AIDS Foundation. White also became the inspiration for a handful of popular songs. Elton John donated proceeds from “The Last Song,” which appears on his album The One, to a Ryan White fund at Riley Hospital. Michael Jackson dedicated the song “Gone Too Soon” from his Dangerous album to White, as did 1980s pop star Tiffany with the song “Here in My Heart” on her New Inside album. In November 2007, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis opened an exhibit called “The Power of Children: Making a Difference,” which remains a sobering, featured exhibit and continues to develop, while it features White’s bedroom and belongings alongside similar tributes to Anne Frank and Ruby Bridges.
In a 1993 interview, prominent gay rights and AIDS activist Larry Kramer said, “I think little Ryan White probably did more to change the face of this illness and to move people than anyone. And he continues to be a presence through his mom, Jeanne White. She has an incredibly moving presence as she speaks around the world.”
Shoulders to Stand On is proud to recognize the children like Ryan White who have shown us how to be courageous, open, and steadfast in the face of fear, oppression, anger and death. Today, perhaps more than ever before, we need to be patient, vigilant, courageous and proud as we continue the struggle for equality and justice in peaceful non-violent action. Next month we will continue looking at the impact of AIDS on students in America.