The father of a Connecticut third-grader filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday saying his daughter has been unfairly barred from school amid fears she may have been exposed to the Ebola virus while in Africa.
Ikeoluwa Opayemi and her family, who live in Milford, visited Nigeria for a family wedding from Oct. 2-13, according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in New Haven. The suit is seeking damages under the Americans with Disabilities Act, asserting that Ikeoluwa is being discriminated against because of a “perceived impairment.”
When the girl tried to return to the Meadowside Elementary School, she was told by Dr. Dennis McBride, the school district’s health director, that she would have to stay home until Nov. 3 “due to concern from certain parents and teachers that she could transmit Ebola to other children,” according to the lawsuit. The virus has a three-week incubation period.
Messages seeking comment were left Tuesday for McBride and School Superintendent Elizabeth Feser.
Andrew Doba, a spokesman for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, said the decision did not come from the state’s health commissioner, who has been given the power to quarantine anyone she feels may pose an Ebola risk.
“This was a decision by the town’s public health official,” he said. “The state did not play a role in making this determination, and this family is not under any quarantine orders.”
The family did not travel to any of the three West African nations associated with the current Ebola outbreak – Guinea, Sierra Leone or Liberia. There have been no diagnosed cases of Ebola in Nigeria since Aug. 31, according to the lawsuit.
“Based on the best available objective and medical evidence, Ikeoluwa Opayemi did not have Ebola, had not experienced any symptoms associated with Ebola, and, according to an examination by her pediatrician, her health is fine and there is no reason why she should not be permitted to go to school,” attorney Gary Phelan wrote in the lawsuit.
Phelan said Tuesday night that forcing the girl to stay away from school is “a blatant violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act,” which protects not only someone who has a disability, but also someone who is perceived to have one.
“One of the reasons the parents filed the lawsuit was to set the record straight with all the rumors in the city about their daughter,” he said. “Hopefully this will at least stop the rumors and the stereotypes and the myths surrounding the Ebola fears. This school had the opportunity to do something about it and chose not to. They took the easy way out.”
Ikeoluwa’s father, Stephen Opayemi, volunteered to have the family screened for Ebola, or have the school nurse monitor her temperature. He said he was instead told by Feser during a meeting with school officials that if Ikeoluwa tried to go to Meadowside Elementary on Oct. 20, she would order her to be removed from the school by the police.
“Dr. McBride stated that although the risk of infection with Ikeoluwa might be minor, the primary reason for his decision that she be quarantined at home for 21 days was due to the rumors, panic and climate at Meadowside Elementary School,” according to the lawsuit.
Stephen Opayemi is seeking an order allowing his daughter to return to school and unspecified monetary damages.
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