ADA lawsuit challenges Ebola-related school suspension

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Ikeoluwa Opayemis traveled to Lagos, Nigeria with her father from October 2 to 13, to attend a family wedding.

Upon her return, Opayemis showed no symptoms of the Ebola virus, which is unsurprising considering there have been no known new cases in the country since August 31. According to the World Health Organization, Nigeria is now Ebola free.

Nonetheless, Meadowside Elementary School in Milford, Connecticut refused to let Opayemis return to her third grade class, suspending her for three weeks.

On October 28, Opayemis’ parents sued the school in the U.S. District Court for the Federal District of Connecticut, arguing that the suspension violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.

For disability rights activists, Meadowside Elementary School’s response recalls previous battles with schools regarding suspensions of students infected with HIV, based on medically disproven fears.

“Fear overwhelmed fact in the early days of panic about HIV and we have to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Instead of surrendering to ignorance, panic and rumors, we urge school officials to take the opportunity to teach some lessons about geography, biology and civics,” Sandra Staub, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, told the New Haven Register.

Although Opayemis has not contracted the virus, the ADA covers not only people with actual disabilities or a record of having disabilities, but those who are regarded as having a perceived impairment. Under this definition, attorneys from Mitchell and Sheahan, who are representing Opayemis, argue that she is covered by the ADA, according to the Connecticut Law Tribune.

When a public entity, such as a school, is sued under the ADA for discriminating against people with disabilities, the entity can raise what is known as the direct threat defense, if the individual “poses a direct threat to health or safety of others.” This determination must be based on “current medical knowledge or on the best available objective evidence, to ascertain the nature, duration, and severity of the risk; the probability that the potential injury will actually occur; and whether reasonable modification of policies, practices and procedures or the provision of auxiliary aids or services will mitigate the risk.”

Opayemis’ attorneys argued that the school never conducted an independent evaluation of her prior to the suspension and therefore are not protected by the direct threat defense, according to the Courthouse News Service.

In the past week, multiple states have imposed quarantines on people suspecting of having Ebola, in direct contrast to the recommendations of most major public heath organizations.

“The government’s response to Ebola needs to be driven by sound medical science, not fear,” ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero said in a statement. “It is absolutely crucial that we treat those exposed to this disease with compassion and dignity and the minimum amount of coercion that public health officials recommend…This is not only a matter of respecting civil liberties – it is a vital part of any effective response to the disease.”