The Milton Hershey School was founded in 1909 by chocolate magnate Milton “Snavely” Hershey as a free prep school for poor White orphaned boys.
That probably sets the stage for what’s been happening there lately, giving you some background on where the school is coming from.
Over time the school has opened its doors to children of all racial backgrounds, providing poor and orphaned children with a top notch boarding school education that few in this country can afford. Of course every school has their limits and apparently Hershey has just found theirs: We can accept the poor, the disenfranchised and the unwanted but we won’t take a kid with HIV.
In a sick and twisted kind of irony on December 1st – otherwise known as World AIDS Day – the AIDS Law Project filed a suit on behalf of an unnamed 13-year old Philadelphia honor student who was denied entry to the school because he is HIV positive.
Getting out in front of the issue, The Hershey School released a statement saying that the rejection was due to concerns about health and safety of other children at the boarding school, putting it on full blast on the home page of their website:
We had been in discussions with the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, which is representing this 13-year-old boy. Recognizing the complex legal issues, the School was preparing to ask the court to weigh in on this matter. Unfortunately, attorneys for the young man took the adversarial action of filing a lawsuit against the School.
The decision to deny enrollment was a challenging one for us to make. Like all our enrollment decisions, we need to balance our desire to serve the needs of an individual child seeking admission with our obligation to protect the health and safety of all 1,850 children already in our care.
Attorneys for this young man and his mother have suggested that this case is comparable to the Ryan White case. But this case is actually nothing like the Ryan White case. Milton Hershey School is not a day school, where students go home to their family at the end of the day. Instead, this is a unique home-like environment, a pre-K -12 residential school where children live in homes with 10-12 other students on our campus 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
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. The reason is simple. We are serving children, and no child can be assumed to always make responsible decisions which protect the well being of others.
Obviously, while that might satisfy The Hershey’s School’s legal defense for the time being as it gears up for a court battle of the ages, that’s not satisfactory for the AIDS Project.
An HIV positive status is protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act and thus if the rejection of this student is based entirely on this status the school would be in violation of federal law.
What’s worse, though?
The boy in question is apparently a stellar honor roll student, is learning two languages and, oh yeah: he just happens to be African American. Didn’t know about that did you? No one wants to talk about that detail because it opens up a nasty array of public health and racial issues since the AIDS epidemic disproportionately impacts the Black community. No matter how you slice it, this case is going to be tied up in the courts on some grounds of discrimination and the school is likely to lose.
But, a larger issue is highlighted in this case. With the number of men women and now children living with HIV, how long before an issue like this becomes a problem in schools all over the country?