A spokesperson for the Milton Hershey School in Hershey, Pennsylvania announced that the school is the subject of a lawsuit by the family of a 13-year-old honor student who was denied admittance because he is HIV-positive. A spokesperson for the school characterized the action by the child’s parents “adversarial.”
According to the spokesperson, Connie McNamara, the school refused to admit the boy over concerns about the safety of other students. “In order to protect our children in this unique environment, we cannot accommodate the needs of students with chronic communicable diseases that pose a direct threat to the health and safety of others,” said McNamara. “The reason is simple. We are serving children, and no child can be assumed to always make responsible decisions that protect the well being of others.”
Federal law, as well as Pennsylvania state law, prohibits schools from refusing to enroll students because they are HIV positive. Officials at the school, which was founded by the late chocolate magnate, assert that, because their school is a boarding school, they are not bound by these rules. “…Children live in homes with 10 to 12 other students…24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” said McNamara.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the school’s concerns are unfounded. HIV cannot be spread through casual contact, and other household members cannot contract HIV from toilet seats, silverware, dishes or by touching surfaces an infected person has touched.
Attorneys at the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, a non-profit organization, drew parallels between the current case and the Ryan White case. White, a middle-school student in Kokomo, Indiana, was initially denied the right to attend school because of his diagnosis. In that case, the school also cited the safety of other students as the reason for their actions. White went on to become a celebrated AIDS activist before his death in 1990.
“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,” said Ronda B. Goldfein of the AIDS Law Project.