HARRISBURG, Pa. – A private boarding school connected with the Hershey chocolate company says it was trying to protect other students when it denied admission to a Philadelphia-area teenager because he is HIV-positive.
The AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit on behalf of the unidentified boy in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia on Wednesday, claiming the Milton Hershey School for disadvantaged students violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.
School officials acknowledged that the 13-year-old boy was denied admission because of his medical condition. They said they believed it was necessary to protect the health and safety of the 1,850 others enrolled in the residential institution, which serves children in pre-kindergarten to 12th grade and where students live in homes with 10 to 12 others.
"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 school said in a statement Wednesday.
Such restrictions are not limited to HIV, school spokeswoman Connie McNamara said Thursday.
Attorney Ronda Goldfein says her client requires no special accommodations. He is an honor-roll student and athlete who controls his HIV with medication that does not affect his school schedule, she said.
"This young man is a motivated, intelligent kid who poses no health risk to other students but is being denied an educational opportunity because of ignorance and fear about HIV and AIDS," Goldfein said.
School officials said they were preparing seek a declaratory judgment from the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania on legal issues surrounding the case when the AIDS Law Project "took the adversarial action of filing a lawsuit."
Goldfein said Thursday she was not aware that the school was contemplating such a court filing, but said action is needed because one-third of the school year is already over.
"The sooner we can get this matter resolved and get my student into an appropriate academic setting, the better," she said.
Congress amended the Americans with Disabilities Act in 2008 to reaffirm that HIV is a qualified disability entitled to accommodation by public and private schools, a lawyer at the New York City-based Center for HIV Law and Policy said.
Beirne Roose-Snyder, the group's managing attorney, said discrimination against people with HIV remains "rampant," even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said for years that the virus is not transmitted through casual contact. Fewer cases are going to trial, she said.
The school's statement "shows a real lack of understanding of the real threat of HIV," Roose-Snyder said.
Goldfein said the HIV discrimination cases she has seen in recent years usually boil down to one person's word against another.
"The reality is, people don't usually admit it like this," she said Thursday.
Founded in 1909 by chocolate maker Milton Hershey, the school educates low-income and socially disadvantaged students for free. It is financed by the Milton Hershey School Trust, which also holds the controlling interest in The Hershey Co.