Backing away from their original stance, a Hershey, Pa. boarding school has decided to offer admission to a teen they initially refused to educate because of his HIV-positive status.
The 14-year-old, referred to by an alias of Abraham Smith in legal documentation, will forge ahead with a lawsuit against the Milton Hershey School alleging violations of rights provided under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. However, attorneys for the ninth grader said he is considering the school’s offer.
“The lawsuit is not over because the school says ‘now we’re going to comply with the law,’” Ronda B. Goldfein, Smith’s lawyer and executive director of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, told the AFRO. “People with HIV are not to be feared, but the stigma and discrimination directed toward HIV is what fuels the epidemic.”
“People are not going to come forward when a place like the Milton Hershey School says people with HIV are ‘too dangerous’ to live with other people,” she added.
According to a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court of Eastern Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia student was told in March 2011 that the school “did not take kids like that,” after his case manager at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia reached out to the institution to disclose his status at the request of his mother.
Nearly four months later, after faxing medical records and completing a full application, Smith received a letter stating that his request for admission was being rejected because his needs were “beyond the scope of the Milton Hershey School.”
The letter clarified stating that Smith was being denied because the school was “unable to meet his needs” given the “residential setting”.
According to ABC News, the school said that Smith’s status posed a “threat” when considering the Milton Hershey School on-campus living situation and teen sexuality.
The school’s vice president of communications, Conny McNamara, declined to comment to the AFRO about the issue, and instead supplied a statement via e-mail from the Milton Hershey School’s principal, Dr. Anthony Colistra.
“Milton Hershey School will no longer refuse admission to otherwise qualified students who have HIV,” Colistra said in the Aug. 6 statement. “As a result of this decision, on July 12 I extended to the young man referred to as Abraham Smith, and his mother, an offer to continue the enrollment process for fall classes.”
Colistra said the new policy has already been implemented and that “mandatory training for staff and students on HIV issues” are in the works.
“The ignorance is two-fold,” said Dr. Stephen Clarke, a licensed Baltimore therapist who specializes in the counseling of HIV/AIDS patients. “One side is not having the education, the other is not having contact or a personal relationship with someone with HIV or AIDS."
“When people don't understand there’s a lot of confusion and fear. From that fear, people make decisions that negatively affect other's mental health, well being, and circumstances,” Clarke told the AFRO.
Though research and information about HIV is readily available at the click of a button on any search engine, facts about the virus are set against the negativity surrounding all sexually transmitted infections.
“Even after three decades of AIDS, stigma is far too common in our country,” said Salina Cranor, a representative of the CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention.
“For example, although HIV cannot be transmitted by casual contact, 45 percent of Americans report being uncomfortable with the idea of having their food prepared by someone who is HIV-positive,” she said.
According to Cranor, in the United States “HIV is most commonly transmitted through specific sexual behaviors or sharing needles with an infected person” and only specific fluids—blood, semen, vaginal secretions, and breast milk—from an HIV-infected person can transmit HIV.”
“These 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.”