Onyx Teasley teaches school a lesson


Call it his own version of Show and Tell. When Onyx Teasley wants to explain his illness to his classmates at Phoenix's Longview Elementary School, he displays a toy "doctor's kit" that includes latex gloves and needleless syringes. These help him demonstrate some safety precautions that health workers use when treating him at Phoenix Children's Hospital.

But the reality of AIDS isn't child's play for the 9-year-old. After Onyx missed a third of the last school year because of bad health, his mother, Melissa, decided to try to enroll him in a 180-student experimental charter school closer to her home and to the hospital than Longview. But despite an enormous "Open Enrollment" sign on the side of the Children's Academy of Arizona, the doors were closed to her son. And not because he doesn't qualify. Onyx, who sometimes uses a wheelchair and has failing eyesight, excels at school, is a piano whiz and plays well with others.

Melissa says the first time she visited the state-funded school, Children's Academy staff mentioned nothing about a waiting list. Only after she disclosed that her son has AIDS did the school tell her it had no room for Onyx. Their excuse? No disabled access.

When she toured the campus and pointed out structural changes the school could make to accommodate wheelchairs, she says a staff member told her the school didn't budget for that kind of renovation. Another staffer told her that teachers might be unwilling to interact with Onyx because of fears of infection. The Children's Academy director, Reginald Barr, offered Onyx placement in a similar school much farther away from home and the hospital.

Melissa Teasley, a chemist on full-time disability because of her own AIDS diagnosis, was not about to roll over. She called the nonprofit Arizona Center for Disability Law, and together they filed suit in U.S. district court last June. "'Separate but equal' is against the law," says one of the center's attorneys, Jerri Katzerman. "What if the grandparent of a child is in a wheelchair and wants to visit the school? A public building must be accessible to the public."

Melissa Teasley lost the legal battle to place her son at the Children's Academy of Arizona. But in an out-of-court settlement in August, Barr agreed to make wheelchair-access improvements to his school. Then Onyx was enrolled -- but, in a dispiriting denouement, stayed for only a few weeks.

"One Friday afternoon the school called in a panic," Teasley says. "Onyx was sick, there was no on-site nurse, and no one knew what to do." Staff at Phoenix Children's Hospital urged Teasley to return her son to a traditional public school. "When it came down to my son's health, I knew the best thing was to pull him out," she says.

Onyx and his mom recently revisited Children's Academy to see for themselves that things will be better for the next wheelchair-using student. "The most amazing thing to me about Onyx is that he felt the rejection by some people, but he is not at all vindictive," his mother says. "He says, 'Mommy I just don't pay 'em any attention.' He has such a wonderful spirit."