Private School Denies Admission To Teen With HIV

fromWITF

A private school in Pennsylvania is denying admission to an HIV positive student. The residential Milton Hershey School says the student would put other children at risk. Now there's a lawsuit against the school and a campaign to boycott Hershey products. The candy company largely bankrolls the school for disadvantaged youth.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Well, now to another lawsuit over alleged civil rights violations. The case takes us to a private school in Pennsylvania, where a student was denied admission because he is HIV-positive. As Craig Layne of member station WITF reports, the school turned away the teen over worries that he could spread the virus.

CRAIG LAYNE, BYLINE: The Milton Hershey School's sprawling, leafy campus in south central Pennsylvania is home to 1,800 students from disadvantaged backgrounds. They pay nothing and when they graduate, most get college scholarships from the institution. Founded in 1909 by chocolate magnate Milton Hershey, it's funded by a trust bankrolled by his famous candy company.

ANTHONY COLISTRA: Now, as we drive around campus here, you can see the student homes...

LAYNE: Anthony Colistra is the school's president. He's also an alumnus, and he's happy to show off what he says is an educational model that's almost alone in the nation.

COLISTRA: We keep these kids year-round, so this is an ice rink that is used in the winter for ice skating, and we have an ice hockey team that competes in the local league.

LAYNE: There's also a pool, a dentist's office, and a massive facility dedicated to feeding and clothing the pre-kindergarten through high school students. Colistra says the Hershey School is a classroom, home and parent all wrapped into one.

COLISTRA: We're not looking for picture-perfect kids. I mean, our youngsters come to us with learning disabilities, with psychological problems, with what they've gone through, with separation issues.

LAYNE: But there's one issue the school's not ready to accept.

RONDA GOLDFEIN: We just couldn't believe that they would really deny a kid admission to school because of HIV.

LAYNE: Ronda Goldfein is the executive director of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania. She's representing the 13-year-old denied admission because he has HIV. Using the pseudonym Abraham Smith in his federal lawsuit, the teen says the Milton Hershey School violated the Americans With Disabilities Act. Goldfein says the school's argument that Smith may spread HIV, amounts to illegal discrimination.

GOLDFEIN: People with HIV have been living in congregate settings for as long as we've known there's been HIV. And they haven't created a risk by their presence.

LAYNE: Milton Hershey School spokeswoman Connie McNamara says the school acknowledges the risk of spreading the virus is very low. But she says it's not zero.

CONNIE MCNAMARA: We teach abstinence. We teach safety to our students. But we know that a significant number of our teenagers on our campus - like teenagers everywhere - are going to engage in sexual activity. And so that was a very real concern for us.

LAYNE: John Culhane is the director of Widener Law School's Health Law Institute. He says Milton Hershey School's argument that it has a unique residential setting, is unlikely to be successful. But there's very little case law to lay a path as to how a court could rule.

JOHN CULHANE: There might have been other instances like this, where things just got worked out very informally, right? But as far as we know, in terms of precedent, I haven't found any.

LAYNE: He says he thinks both sides are acting in good faith, and a court decision could affect HIV/AIDS policy across the country. The case is already getting attention. Dozens gathered outside a Hershey Company stockholders' meeting this spring, under the watchful eye of a state police helicopter. Among the protesters calling for a boycott of the chocolate company is Marco Benjamin(ph).

MARCO BENJAMIN: I've been HIV-positive for four years. And I feel that our work, as HIV-positive folks, is still not done. Here in Hershey, they really need a lot of HIV education.

LAYNE: Activist groups like the AIDS Health Care Foundation say their boycott will continue until the Milton Hershey School admits Abraham Smith. That decision will likely be left in the hands of a court.

For NPR News, I'm Craig Layne.

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