Milton Hershey School Offers Admission, Apologizes to "Abraham Smith"
Pennsylvania's Milton Hershey School has reversed its decision last year to deny admission to "Abraham Smith," a 13-year-old straight-A student, solely because he is HIV-positive. The school's fear, never directly stated, was that the young man might at some point have sex and transmit his HIV to other students. His parents sued the school under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Last Monday the Philadelphia Enquirer reported the school had apologized to "Abraham" and offered him admission, and the story spread quickly to national press. The school cited "guidance" from the U.S. Department of Justice in explaining its change of position. Whether or not "Abraham" now accepts the admission he was denied last year, his lawyer says the ADA suit will continue.
We were among many organizations strongly criticizing the schools original denial of admission, but we also thought the school should have a chance to explain itself. We interviewed the school's director of communications in January and came away with three impressions. (1) The school's responses to our questions were very carefully scripted and had probably been reviewed by lawyers down to the commas and periods. (2) The school had never really answered our argument that denying "Abraham" and other HIV-positive applicants admission would not protect the school's students from HIV -- there are simply too many other ways for the virus to slip onto campus. (3) The director of communications was stuck with a really miserable position to defend, and we wouldn't have her job for any money.
As the episode now moves to at least partial completion, we repeat what we had to say last winter. HIV segregation is not just illegal, it fails to prevent the spread of HIV. Admitting "Abraham" would only change the school's situation from knowing it might have HIV on campus to knowing it did. In either case, the appropriate response was comprehensive sex education.
Now that the school has apologized to "Abraham," we think it is time for the school to apologize to all people living with HIV. The school's decision to deny admission because of HIV status grew out of HIV stigma and reinforced that stigma. Our best hope for ending the HIV epidemic is near-universal regular testing and immediate treatment for all who test positive. Stigma prevents many who know they need testing and treatment from seeking it.
It's time for the Milton Hershey School to show courage and integrity, stop saying, "We were following the law as we understood it," and acknowledge that it injured all people living with HIV, not just "Abraham."