School denies student over HIV status

By Stephanie Holland / Senior Staff Assistant

By Stephanie Holland / Senior Staff Assistant

By all accounts Milton Hershey School in Hershey, Pa., is an extraordinary school. It helps pre-kindergarten-12th grade students from underprivileged backgrounds get ahead by offering them a quality education for free.

On the school’s website, its mission statement reads, “In keeping with Milton and Catherine Hershey’s Deed of Trust, Milton Hershey School nurtures and educates children in social and financial need to lead fulfilling and productive lives.”

However, one has to wonder where all that nurturing was when the school decided to not accept a 13-year-old honors student because he is HIV positive.

The school claims that it is only thinking of the best interests of its students because having an HIV positive student attend a residential school where students live together poses a direct threat.

“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,” said the school’s spokeswoman in a CNN interview with Anderson Cooper.

First and foremost, that is a ridiculous assessment of the situation. If there’s one thing everyone has figured out by now it’s that HIV and AIDS cannot be passed through casual contact. Therefore calling this young man a direct threat makes it sound like he has the plague.

Does the school take this stand when it comes to other illnesses like cancer, diabetes, asthma, or other sexually transmitted diseases? Or is this just a reaction to the stigma that HIV and AIDS unfortunately still carry.

Milton Hershey’s mission statement continues with “our vision focuses on building character and providing children with the skills necessary to be successful in all aspects of life.”

Exactly what kind of character are they trying to build by punishing an HIV positive teenager?

With all the good work the school is doing to provide high quality, free education to underprivileged students, this decision seems to fly in the face of everything it claims it teaches and stands for.

The real sadness in this situation is that it seems as though not much has changed in the 26 years since Ryan White was fighting his middle school for expelling him when his HIV status became public. How can we still be fighting these same issues when it’s nearly 2012?

“I think Ryan would be very annoyed that we’re doing this again,” said Ryan’s mother Jeanne White-Ginder in an interview with Cooper. “He would feel like we’ve already fought this battle.”

“I think it was important to Ryan to see a person for who they really are. You’re not giving him a chance of seeing who he is, all you’re seeing is HIV/AIDS and you’re not giving him a chance in life,” White said.

Putting aside all the moral reasons this is wrong, the school’s decision is against the law.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, it is illegal for Milton Hershey School to discriminate against this young man based on his HIV status.

So this school which claims to give students “guidance and support in all parts of their lives” has found a specific aspect of life in which they will neither guide nor support.

Despite all the school’s nice language and legalese, at the end of the day it has discriminated against this boy for reasons beyond his control and it has taught its students a very important lesson in understanding and compassion.

Do as they say, not as they do.