DUBLIN -- The nationwide debate over acquired immune deficiency syndrome continued in an unlikely setting last night, before a standing-room audience of more than 250 parents in an elementary school gymnasium in this rural hamlet in northern Harford County.
Last week, word was leaked to parents and the news media that a student infected with the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS, had enrolled recently in the 279-student Dublin Elementary School. The news prompted some fearful parents to remove their children from classes and led the county school board to convene a special meeting aimed at educating parents about the fatal disease.
But even before the presentation by AIDS experts and school administrators, it was clear that many in the audience had made up their minds to transfer their children to other schools or demand that the unidentified infected pupil be tutored at home.
School officials have declined to provide any details about the child.
"I'm afraid, yeah," said Kathy Richardson, of Dublin, who came to the meeting with her 5th-grade son, Michael. "We should have been told. What if this kid with the virus spits up or throws up on another kid? It's all whitewashed bull. They're trying to smooth everything over.
"The principal knew, the teachers knew, the bus driver knew, but these kids didn't know," she said. "They're the ones who are most susceptible."
Mrs. Richardson and several other Dublin parents were angry that they were not told that a child with the HIV virus had enrolled at the school and they expressed fears that the virus could be spread through casual contact.
Dr. Eric Fine, director of patient services in the AIDS Administration at the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, tried to answer most of the questions raised by parents, giving a primer on the ways in which the AIDS virus is transmitted.
But despite his detailed presentation, and another by Dr. Nancy Hutton, director of the Johns Hopkins University AIDS pediatric clinic, several parents who spoke at the meeting remained skeptical and raised questions about school procedures to cope with bleeding, bites or cuts involving a student who is HIV-positive.
"I have two children," said Donna Hamilton, of Jarrettsville. "As a mother, I'm concerned. There's always a fear that something can happen to your child. I'm not just concerned about my own child. You always think something like this is happening in someone else's community."
Dublin Elementary School PTA President Sally E. Bunce, however, expressed confidence in the way the administration had handled the matter, including the adoption of safety procedures and AIDS education classes for students and teachers.
"It's something that's not going to go away," said Mrs. Bunce, whose child is a third-grader at the school. "We have to teach our children personal hygiene all over again."
Despite the mixed reception, schools Superintendent Ray R. Keech thought the meeting, which lasted more than two hours, was beneficial to parents, teachers, administrators and students.
"If you're open and honest, there's a likelihood that people will listen to the facts," said Dr. Keech. "Education is the best way to provide the facts. The biggest fear is when you don't know."
Dr. Keech said chances are that there will be similar meetings to discuss AIDS in the future.
"We have 31,500 kids in the school system," Dr. Keech said. "If we live in a normal, general population, statistics suggest that there are several more children with HIV in the county. They just may not know that they have it.
"That's why it's absolutely important that we do everything to educate adults. We're already doing that with kids."