The Delaware County boy has lived with HIV for his entire life. He controls the virus by taking five pills per day, plus vitamins, and sees his doctor about three times a year. Having HIV hasn't stopped him from playing sports or keeping his top spot on the honor roll, but the Milton Hershey School says point-blank that it won't admit the well-qualified boy because of his HIV-positive status. The boy, who is identified by the pseudonym Abraham Smith, is suing the school for discrimination.
On Thursday -- which was, ironically, the 23rd annual World AIDS Day, dedicated to spreading awareness about HIV and AIDS -- the school filed a request asking federal courts to approve their decision to deny admission to the boy.
"The decision to deny enrollment was a challenging one for us to make," school representatives said in a statement. "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."
The Milton Hershey School is a private, cost-free boarding school that's open to children from low-income families. Students there live on campus "in homes with 10 to 12 other students, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, throughout most of the year," the school said in the petition that it filed with the courts.
"Because of the comprehensive nature of the care provided by the School, and its long experience serving children, the School knows that no child can be assumed to always make responsible decisions which protect the well being of others," the petition reads. "The School believes that it has made the correct assessment of the risks of transmission of HIV in this setting, and has not violated the law because this student would pose a direct threat to the health and safety of other students."
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Only specific fluids (blood, semen, vaginal secretions, and breast milk) from an HIV-infected person can transmit HIV. These specific fluids must come in contact with a mucous membrane or damaged tissue or be directly injected into the blood-stream (from a needle or syringe) for transmission to possibly occur." According to the National Association of State Boards of Education, "the presence of a person living with HIV infection or diagnosed with AIDS poses no significant risk to others in school, day care, or school athletic settings."
The school's admissions criteria, posted on its website, do not mention health issues. "The school examines need, motivation, and personal character in making its final selections," it says. But, in the rejection letter it sent to the boy's mother, the school wrote that the boy's "documented needs are beyond the scope of the Milton Hershey School programs."
"I feel no other teenager should go through this, being denied just because they have HIV," the boy said in an interview with NBC Philadelphia.
The boy's lawyer, Ronda Goldfein of the AIDS Law Project, wrote in the lawsuit that the school has "violated multiple anti-discrimination laws."
"If you have a school that’s open to the public, then it’s open to the public," Goldfein told NBC Philadelphia. "If you have a student that has a particular need and requests assistance, then you accommodate. You don’t simply say, 'We don’t like you, we don’t like your diagnosis, you can’t come here'."
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