I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 1980s, at a time when HIV/AIDS was decimating the gay community. AIDS has since been rendered a chronic but manageable illness with the development of effective antiviral drugs (at least for those who can afford them), but at that time a diagnosis of AIDS was considered to be a death sentence.
In the 1980s, there was also considerable fear of those living with HIV/AIDS. Many people, including policymakers, were ignorant of the ways in which HIV could and could not be transmitted. Some thought that even casual contact could pass the disease from person to person. Victims suffering the ravages of the disease were thus also ostracized and stigmatized by the larger community, driven from their jobs, their schools and their homes by an ignorant public
As a high school student at that time, I still vividly remember the controversy surrounding Ryan White, an HIV-positive teen who was turned away from his school by a mob of administrators, teachers, students and parents. Ryan successfully sued to be readmitted, only to be driven away by relentless harassment. He was required to use a separate bathroom, eat with disposable utensils, and banned from enrolling in a gym class.
Before he passed away at the age of eighteen, however, Ryan went on to become a strong advocate for those living with HIV/AIDS. He also serves as powerful reminder of the importance of educating people about the disease, and the largest federally funded program for people living with HIV/AIDS is named in his honor.
Imagine my surprise, then, to discover that twenty-five years later yet another school has turned away a young man living with HIV/AIDS. Colleagues at organizations like Change.org, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation and the Gay Men’s Health Crisis have been circulating petitions and arranging protests over the Milton Hershey School’s decision.
The Milton Hershey School is a a private boarding school in Pennsylvania, offering free education and housing, from kindergarten through the 12th-grade, to promising students from low income or socially disadvantaged families. The Milton Hershey School Trust, which funds the school, also owns a controlling interest in the Hershey Company, the largest chocolate manufacturer in North America.
In deciding to turn away an otherwise qualified 13-year-old candidate solely because he is HIV positive, the school argued that he poses “a direct threat to the health and safety of others that cannot be avoided by reasonable modifications of the School’s policies and procedures.” They also claim that their decision is not based in bias or ignorance, but this is wrong. The School’s decision not to admit this student is ignorant, is shameful, and is probably illegal under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The School’s concern is not that HIV can be transmitted through causal contact but that it can be transmitted sexually. As a residential facility they worry that the middle- and high-school students in their care are having sex, despite their best efforts to prevent this. They’re probably right.
However, the way to keep the students safe from HIV, herpes or other dangerous sexually transmitted diseases is not to exclude those living with HIV/AIDS from admission. The way to keep the students safe is by educating them about how HIV and similar diseases are transmitted, and how to protect themselves. It is the School’s job to educate, and it is the kid’s duty to learn. This includes lessons about personal responsibility and rational decision-making, particularly about sex and relationships. Unfortunately schools around the country do a terrible job of this, as demonstrated by high rates of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases among teenagers.
If anything, the young man whom the Milton Hershey School denied admission to is likely more responsible and trustworthy than the students they are trying to protect. He has lived his life with a terrible albeit controllable disease, and has learned from an early age how to protect his own health and the health of those around him. What kind of message do we send a boy like this by denying him admission to a school solely because he is HIV positive? Are we implying that his life is less worthy than those who are fortunate enough not to be infected? Are we suggesting that he cannot be trusted to protect those he cares for? That’s a terrible message to send.
Shame on you Milton Hershey School … No Hershey’s kisses for you!
[This blog entry was originally presented as an oral commentary on Northeast Public Radio on April 26, 2012. It is also available on the WAMC website.]
[Update: In early August, following a notification from the US Department of Justice that they were likely violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Milton Hershey School reversed its decision and admitted the student in question.]