School of Hard Knocks

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My Turn by Chip Alfred

Questions remain after Hershey School pays a $700,000 settlement in an HIV discrimination lawsuit

It doesn’t happen very often, but every once in a while a story comes across my screen that makes my jaw drop. The details of this injustice are disturbing—not only because it’s an egregious case of discrimination against an HIV-positive person, but because the victim at the center of this firestorm is fourteen years-old.

Abraham Smith (a pseudonym to protect his privacy), is an honor-roll student athlete attending public school near Philadelphia. In 2011, he submitted an application for admission to the Milton Hershey School (MHS), a private school in Hershey, Pennsylvania, established by the chocolate magnate and his wife. On its Web site the school maintains it has been “opening new doors for children since 1909” and that “dreams for a child’s future can come true.” MHS is a cost-free, coeducational boarding school with a mission that includes “creating a brighter future for children from families of low income, limited resources, and social need” and “helping children reach their full potential intellectually, emotionally, socially, physically, and spiritually.” That is, unless you’re a child living with HIV. For Abraham, who seems like a perfect candidate for the school, his dream didn’t come true. In fact, it turned into the biggest nightmare of his life. And MHS’s purported policy of “opening new doors” for kids? The door to opportunity was slammed shut right in Abraham Smith’s face.

The school refused to admit Abraham because he has HIV, claiming he would pose a “direct threat” to the health and safety of other students. MHS stuck to its position for more than a year, despite a federal lawsuit alleging violations of anti-discrimination laws filed by the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania (ALPP) and an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. On August 6, 2012, the school’s president, Dr. Anthony Colistra, issued an apology to Abraham and his mother, and offered to reconsider the boy’s application. Abraham’s mother decided it was not in her son’s best interest to attend the school.

On September 12, ALPP announced they had reached a $700,000 settlement with MHS for Abraham and his mother. Under the terms of the agreement, the school is required to provide HIV training for its staff and students. MHS will also pay ALPP’s legal fees and civil penalties of $15,000 assessed by the Department of Justice, which determined that the school violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Hershey School declined to comment for this article, but Dr. Colistra made this official statement on the MHS Web site: “We had hoped that the student known as Abraham Smith would attend Milton Hershey School this fall and experience the life-changing opportunities this unique environment provides.” Really?

Ronda Goldfein, attorney for the student and his mom, tells A&U that the settlement was a good one for the boy. It “gives him great educational opportunities, just the kind of opportunities he thought he was looking at when he applied to the school.” But what about the emotional trauma this child has endured? Can any amount of money take away the pain? “Being denied admission because he had HIV was like the hard cold reality,” Goldfein asserts. “Now it comes with a whole other set of issues he never saw coming, and he was really blindsided by it.”

As Abraham tells A&U via e-mail, eighth grade was his worst school year ever and one he will never be able to forget. The stress he encountered is something “no fourteen-year-old should ever experience,” he says. “I didn’t have anxiety or depression issues before…
but I do now.” And does the six-figure settlement make it all better? Not even close. “I am still disgusted because money and politics mean nothing to me right now. They made me feel as though I was worthless, ignorant, and irresponsible.”

“This case renewed a nationwide discussion about whether people with HIV represent a risk to others in casual settings,” Goldfein says. “The question has once again been definitively answered: They do not.”

But why do we have to keep answering the same question? If you discriminate against someone for having HIV, you’re breaking the law and there could be serious consequences. We can only hope every school administrator has learned this lesson once and for all.

Chip Alfred is Editor at Large for A&U and a nationally published freelance journalist based in Philadelphia.

November 2012