This National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, we are keeping up with the annual observance's objective to recognize the virus’ little-known impact on this group of people by sharing the not-so-acknowledged story of Eliana Martínez.
Tens of thousands of young people across the United States live with HIV. Three decades ago, this status kept children and adolescents from acquiring an education. But in 1989, Eliana, a Puerto Rican girl who was born prematurely and exposed to HIV while undergoing multiple transfusions, and her stepmother, Rosa Martínez, won a three-year fight against the School Board of Hillsborough County in Florida, allowing her to attend public school and paving the way for other HIV-positive children to do the same.
The battle started in 1986, when Martínez, a licensed nurse, wanted to enroll her daughter in school. Research around HIV at the time was still in its infancy, and most, including parents of schoolchildren, weren't aware that the virus predominantly spread through sex or needles. Martínez argued that Eliana, who was also mentally disabled, needed to be surrounded by other children. But school officials in Hillsborough County, located in Tampa, Florida, disagreed, saying they feared she might transmit the virus through bodily fluids.
In 1988, Federal District Judge Elizabeth A. Kovachevich ruled that Martínez could attend school, but only in a glass partition that was isolated from her classmates. The enclosure, which was 8-by-10 feet, was made of large Plexiglas window and included a sound system, a toilet and a desk, and was to be placed at the back of the classroom.
No one was satisfied.
About 150 parents had the opportunity to look at the glass booth, and many did not want it in their children's classrooms.
“If Eliana Martínez comes here, my daughter won't," one dad, Robin Preston, said, according to The New York Times. “There's too much unknown to say AIDS is not a communicable disease. I’m sorry she has the disease, but why put all the other children in jeopardy?”
Martínez also refused to have Eliana placed in the $8,000 construction, which she called a “cage.”
“This is the closest Eliana has been to a classroom, but I can't send her to school to sit in a cage,” she said.
Martínez, who adopted Eliana at 11 months after hearing a radio appeal in Puerto Rico for a baby living in a hospital, was determined.
“She was deprived of family and we became that. She was deprived of health and we gave her the best medical attention we could. Now, I don't want her deprived of an education. She needs more than an hour a week to progress. And she needs friends,” Martínez said.
She and her attorney, Steve Hanlon, took the case to the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th district in Atlanta.
“The issues in this case involve critically important national policy,” he stated at the time.
Months later, the Appeals Court sent the case back to Judge Kovachevich, saying Martínez must be placed in a regular classroom unless evidence proved that she posed a significant risk to other children.
According to the Center for HIV Law and Policy, Martínez v. School Board of Hillsborough "ruled that a developmentally disabled child with AIDS could not be excluded from a Trainable Mentally Handicapped (TMH) classroom if she posed no serious risk of HIV transmission."
Martínez was thrilled. She and her then-husband Joe had moved from Puerto Rico to Tampa to provide their new daughter with a better life, and that dream felt possible for her after the win.
“All she understands is she will be going in to play with some little people. She doesn't know what school is; she hasn't been to it,” Martínez said following the ruling.
In April 1989, Eliana sat at a desk alongside other children her age for the first time. She attended public school for seven months before passing away at 8 years old.