Is School Rejection of Black HIV Student an Omen of What’s to...

Is School Rejection of Black HIV Student an Omen of What’s to Come?

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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?

19 COMMENTS

  1. I've heard a lot of would-be pundits spin this a lot of different ways, but to try to mix this very sensitive issue with race is a first. It's also intellectually dishonest and irresponsible.

    As a graduate of the school, I'm here to tell you that you have no idea what you're talking about. The student body is 54% minority children coming in from literally all over the country. It accepts students of all religions (my first roommate was a Muslim, and MHS was there to protect him from the xenophobic hate after 9-11), races and backgrounds assuming they have genuine need. My classmates had been raped, their parents had been murdered, many were homeless and some were orphans. MHS takes these children (black and all) and clothes them and feeds them, educates them and then gives them a free ticket to college. I have classmates at five of the eight ivy league schools, and only two of them are white.

    How many homeless black children have YOU sent to Yale?

    Fact is, the school is a dangerous place. They are taking kids who have seen the worst that American poverty has to offer and putting them in homes together during the most emotionally fragile period of their lives. There is violence. There is sex. There is rape. There are drugs. There is the occasional case of abuse for the staff. MHS is no place for a child with a deadly, communicable, blood disease.

  2. I must respond to Copenhaver… so why didn't the school just say that, rather than put the responsibility on the HIV-positive boy by saying that they are afraid "he" might engage in sexual activity and risk HIV transmission to others? Why not just state the real reason that they are afraid of him being raped? Seems to me this school has lots of explaining to do. Have any of these rapes been reported to authorities? Or are they covering their a$$ on that issue as well? Something stinks here, and it ain't the cheese in Denmark.

  3. And on what basis do you conclude HE would be the one being raped. It's equally possible that he might rape someone else in retaliation for bullying or other reasons, and his impact on the person may be lethal. But in reality, the school can't disclose to the students that he is HIV Positive, and it is now HIS responsibility to communicate that should he engage in sexual activities with either gender. Their description of the situation while slightly sugar coated is a polite way to address what can, does, and will continue to happen in an overnight school scenario.

  4. Fact is, the school is a dangerous place and much like ANY OTHER INSTITUTION OUT THERE you will run into kids "who have seen the worst that American poverty has to offer and putting them in homes together during the most emotionally fragile period of their lives. There is violence. There is sex. There is rape. There are drugs. There is the occasional case of abuse for the staff." sounds like everywhere and anywhere out there. to say that "MHS is no place for a child with a deadly, communicable, blood disease" as if he would be safer somewhere else is ludicrous. any kid is susceptible to that treatment anywhere.

    • Yes, but if it happens "anywhere," presumably the parents of those other children are responsible for their well being and protection. In this case, the MHS is the responsible "parent." They have to protect the kids they have already accepted into the school and are responsible for.

      I agree that tinging this with accusations of racism is simply hyping up what is already a ridiculously polarized public conversation. The truth is, this is not a case with a simple "right" and "wrong" answer. We can't advance our real understanding of HIV as a public health issue until we can start to move beyond accusations of ignorance and hate, and begin to have an actual nuanced discussion of very complicated – and heartbreaking – issues.

      • So then HIV positive people shouldn't be offered scholarships go to college and live in the Dorms? Or go to college at all since it is an over night school. Or perhaps they shouldn't go on cruises or stay in hotels, who knows what can happen. This is a ridiculous and very dangerous arguement.

        • what you are saying has to deal with that child not being a child anymore. when they go to college they are responsible for themselves and their actions. when they are young their parents take responsibility for them which is what this school is. it is the parents to all these orphan children and has to protect them. this should be treated like any other HOME where the parent has the right to say no to a contagious person coming to live or stay at their HOME. personally i wouldnt let my child live with anyone who has hiv/aids whether they are young or old. children are reckless and cut and scrape themselves all the time playing. there should be no reason to put other lives at stake just for one. that kid can go to any public school anywhere. i agree that if i was any regular public or a regular private school where the kids dont LIVE there then this would be a case for discrimination. i think his parents are just looking for some cash.

  5. There is no direct risk of infecting another student. Research the effects of antiviral medication on the immune system. This is a very complex issue, and none of you are qualified to provide commentary. The school is in direct violation of a federal law and will lose the court case hands down. The amount of ignorance that still exist today is astonishing.

  6. Wow… What statement…looks like this school has way too many issues… There is no way I would send my son to that school. Rape… Abuse… Drugs… Kids fall into that trap at their homes… Why send them

  7. People, this school only takes kids at a specific poverty level. THEY give them shelter, an education (with access to amazing programs and equipment) – clothing, food and then $80,000 upon graduation for their college. All free to these kids. Don't be stupid – real world, you take kids who have grown up in some of the most horrid conditions, they are going to lack social skills many times and be problematic. This school is taking them in bulk and changing their lives. Amazing program. These kids live communally and as a private school – need to look out for the mass and should have that right. But to act like they discriminate – that is completely uneducated in what the school is about.

    • I like what Ben has to say here. As a parent of two children that attend MHS, they are providing so many children with the tools to live healthy productive lives. We are very greatful for what they are doing for the children.
      They have an exstensive application process and one of my children almost didnt make the cut. I’ve never been worried about their safety and have always had full access to everyone from house parents, teachers, and other staff to answere any questions I may have. The author of this article seems to be trying to spin in a race issue, which really means they dont know much about the school. The majority of the children in both of my childrens student homes are minorities, of those a large percentage are African Americans.
      If you feel strongly enough to argue and write about it then maybe try to stick to the topic. dont try to add fule to the fire with unfounded statements.

  8. This article and the comments on it show one thing to me: while there is a lot of misunderstanding out there about HIV, there is equally as much misunderstanding out there about the Milton Hershey School. Your accusations that this decision has anything to do with race is inaccurate and unkind. Whites were a minority when I attended from 1998-2002. The school does a lot for the advancement of kids of all races. Racism and ignorance are not tolerated there.

    The school is not discriminating here. The reasoning behind this is that MHS functions as much more than a school. When they admit a child, they are almost “adopting” that child. I use that term somewhat loosely because the parent/ guardian still has some rights, but while the student is in the school’s care they have all the rights and responsibilities of the child’s parent. The school pays for all food, school related clothing, supplies and equipment, medical care, counseling, room and board, transportation, etc. They are legally responsible for all 1800+ kids in their care, 24/7, 365, minus when they go home for a break. Some students stay at the school over summer and holidays because they have nowhere else to go. The school offers programs for the students during these times. I went Whitewater rafting, camping, and took a driver’s Ed course to name a few.

    My point is this: in a private adoption, shouldn’t it be the adoptors’ decision to accept a child based on their HIV status? This scenario is similar, and in both cases should be a private, personal decision. The school doesn’t feel it can adequately provide for the child’s needs. End of story. If they felt they could, they would.

    As far as the earlier discussion about rape and drugs at the school, I can only say that that stuff happens much less at MHS than at the pubic schools and foster homes many of these kids come from. If you couldn’t picture sending your child to mhs, and you feel that you are doing a good job with your kids, then MHS is probably not the place for them. My mom sent 4 of her kids there because she was raising 5 on her own with an income of around 13k per year. The school spent over 100K per year on my expenses. Today I thank her for sending me to MHS, and I am thankful to the school for the awesome second chance it gave me. It was a privilege to attend, not a right.

    I believe people with HIV have the same rights as all people. But rights aren’t being denied here. Privileges are. Not because they are afraid, but because the school loves the kids there. They know that these kids have shortcomings (which they are trying to remedy a much as they can) which could cause a dangerous situation to arise from this scenario. They aren’t discriminating, they are simply being a loving parent.

    I ask everyone to ask themselves if they would be willing to adopt a child with HIV into their family. It is a difficult, personal decision. If this child were trying to get into a day school or apply for a job and was denied on the same basis, I would be crying discrimination like everyone else, but there is more to it than that. This is a question of whether or not to admit a new family member. Respect our MHS family and our decision.

  9. 2002 grad, you do bring a good argument to the table. That being said… The statement from the school does not reflect the same sentiment. Perhaps had their response been made in a similar manner the attitude of the people would be different…

    And at the same time… I disagree.
    Universal precautions should be utilized in every environment. Denying this child based on his POZ status shows a lack of education of any disease…

  10. >>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?<<

    Since new HIV infections are at a stable rate and have never made significant inroads to the general population of the US, it is unlikely this is a bellwether for a trend.

    As this is a single-sex school, the main risk of transmission is via gay sex. All schools should be educating their students about the high HIV transmission risk of gay male sex regardless of the status of their students.

  11. this is a very tough thing for "outsiders" to understand. Bottom line is 2002, hit it right on the nail. This kid is not being denied anything! People this is a PRIVATE INSTITUTION, they DON'T need to abide by all of the public laws. Their first concern is to those kids already enrolled. I am a 1994 graduate, my 2 brothers and I attended the school f or 8 yrs till graduated. In that time period, I understand it is much different than it is today, we are more educated about the disease and how to handle it. But in a unique setting like this school, it just does not go well like your typical 6 hour public school. Personally, I feel this issue is going to open up more law suits from other parents with students already enrolled.

  12. BTW, the school has changed their decision and are now saying that they will allow the teen to be allowed in the school. To me this is just a very tough decision and I am sadden that the school has caved in. Personally as a mother of 3 myself, my husband and I cry and miss our kids when they go away to camps…they are healthy girls. Why would this mother want to leave her child with such a high risk disease? I would feel very guilty if something happened to my kids. I know life is life and things can happen anywhere. But why would you expose more danger to this kid and so many others?

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