Third-grader banned from school after trip to Africa: Schools defend decision
Milford’s school superintendent on Wednesday denied allegations that officials mishandled the case of a student banned from school after returning from Africa.
A lawsuit filed Oct. 28 by the student's family, however, claims officials acted inappropriately and discriminated against the seven-year-old girl based on misguided fear about Ebola.
According to the lawsuit filed by Attorney Gary Phelan of the Stratford firm Mitchell & Sheahan, the student — a third-grade girl at Meadowside Elementary School — traveled with her father from Oct. 2 to 13 to Lagos, Nigeria, for a family wedding. When the student returned, school officials refused to let her back to class “and have banned her from the school for a 21-day period until November 3.”
In his complaint, Phelan says the schools’ actions “are based on fears related to the outbreak of Ebola in the countries of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia in West Africa.”
He further charges that officials made the decision to keep the girl out of school even though she has not been diagnosed with Ebola, and has not shown any signs of the virus.
Phelan said in his complaint that the girl’s father offered to have himself and his daughter screened for Ebola, and he pointed out that Nigeria is several hundred miles away from the three countries where the Ebola outbreak has occurred.
According to the complaint, on Oct. 10 Milford Health Director Dr. A. Dennis McBride contacted the girl’s mother and told her that the state health department had directed that cities and towns do a health screening for Ebola for everyone that had recently traveled to Africa.
Dr. McBride told the mother to bring her daughter in for a screening when she returned, and the mother agreed, according to the complaint.
When the girl and her father returned from Africa, Dr. McBride called the father and told him his third-grader should not return to Meadowside due to concern from some parents and teachers that she could transmit Ebola, the complaint states.
The girl’s father followed up with school officials with a letter, saying that he believed his daughter was being subjected to unfair and discriminatory treatment.
“Later that day on Tuesday, October 14, 2014, Dr. McBride contacted [the father] and said [the girl] should continue to remain at home until the ‘climate’ changes and the rumors at her school stop,” the complaint states. “He explained that their decision was based on their desire to address the concern of some teachers, staff and parents.”
The father reminded Dr. McBride that he had proposed that his daughter undergo a screening for Ebola, and Dr. McBride reportedly said that was no longer an option. The father asked if he could take his daughter to an independent doctor for a screening, or have the girl’s temperature checked by the school nurse. Both proposals were rejected, the lawsuit states.
On Oct. 15, the girl’s parents met at School Supt. Dr. Feser’s office with Dr. Feser, Dr. McBride and Meadowside Principal Gail Krois.
In his complaint, Phelan says McBride told the parents that the primary reason for his decision that the girl be quarantined at home for 21 days “was due to the rumors, panic and climate at Meadowside Elementary School.”
On Oct. 17, the father sent a note to school and health officials stating that unless he got an official letter or email confirming Dr. McBride’s instructions to keep his daughter home for 21 days due to fears of Ebola risk and rumors, the girl would return to school on Monday, Oct. 26.
The complaint states that another meeting was called, and Dr. Feser told the parents that if the girl returned before Nov. 3, she would be removed from the school by police.
The girl did undergo a medical evaluation Oct. 24, and doctors deemed her in fine health, the complaint states.
The suit claims that the girl has suffered severe emotional distress and requests that she be permitted to return to her class and that the school system pay legal and other fees.
In her statement released Wednesday afternoon, Dr. Feser said, “In addressing this situation, at all times, my staff and I proceeded in good faith to respond to this public health issue. We acted in the best interest of all of our students and staff.”
Dr. Feser said she could not say more about the matter. Dr. McBride's office said he also cannot comment further because the case is in litigation.