Inside the Hershey School’s Decision to Bar HIV+ Student
To many of us, it sounds like something out of the Dark Ages of the mid-1980s, AIDS epidemic when fear and ignorance prevailed. A student is barred from attending school because he has HIV.
That happened to Ryan White, the teenage hemophiliac who was expelled from middle school in Indiana in 1984. He became a poster boy for the epidemic before he died in 1990 just before his high school graduation. His legacy is the Ryan White Care Act, which federally funds programs for low-income people with HIV/AIDS and their families. Many had also hoped a dual legacy would be toleration for people with HIV -- especially children.
Yet this recent news item shows how much fear and ignorance still rule in some quarters close to 31 years after the epidemic began. The century-old Milton Hershey School, founded by the man who gave the world chocolate bars, has refused admission to a 13-year-old student simply because he is HIV-positive.
In the Pennsylvania town named for the chocolatier, the institution is a private boarding school for more than 1,800 disadvantaged K through 12 students. All their expenses are paid through a trust the chocolate czar established. The school does not receive any federal or state funding, which means it is not subject to any governmental decrees regarding issues such as students with HIV.
Facing Down Irrational Fears
The administration’s rationale for barring the Philadelphia-area student is simple and, to many observers, infuriating: Because it’s a residential school, there’s always the possibility that the youth could have sex with others after the lights go out.
On Nov. 30, the eve of World AIDS Day, the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania filed a discrimination suit against the school in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. That law and others prohibit discrimination on the basis of a real or even a perceived disability, including having HIV, according to Ronda Goldfein, the project’s executive director. The lawsuit doesn’t identify the youth and uses the pseudonym Abraham Smith.
In a news release, Goldfein, who is representing the boy and his mother, said she was struck by the similarities between her client and the one-time face of AIDS, who would have turned 40 on Dec. 6. "Like Ryan White, this young man is a motivated, intelligent kid who poses no health risk to other students, but is being denied an educational opportunity because of ignorance and fear about HIV and AIDS," the attorney said.
She pointed out that public health authorities have unequivocally declared that HIV is not transmitted through normal day-to-day contact in schools or social settings. According to the suit, the boy "is an honor roll student and an avid athlete." He controls his HIV through medication that doesn’t have an impact on his school schedule.
The suit seeks to have the school admit the 13-year-old, develop an anti-discrimination policy and conduct staff sensitivity training on HIV. It also requests monetary awards.
"We were stunned that there was no pretext around the defense," Goldfein told EDGE in an interview. "They excluded him because he had HIV. There was no attempt to exclude him for some other reason."
She added that there’s no question that the Americans with Disability Act covers private schools.
Next: Paranoia Strikes Deep