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Bioethicist: Shame on school for rejecting boy with HIV

Today is World AIDS day – and there’s a lot of  rhetoric flying around about progress in the fight against HIV and AIDS, especially in overcoming fear and bigotry.

Except for at one school in Pennsylvania.

The administrators at the Milton Hershey School have single-handedly set back years of hard work tamping down the fear of those with HIV by denying admission to a boy who is HIV-positive, based on what can only be explained as fear, ignorance and bigotry.

The pre-K to 12th grade boarding school, located in Hershey, Penn., was financed and founded in 1909 by the Hershey’s chocolate company tycoon.  It gives a free education to poor children and kids with behavioral problems.  It has beautiful grounds, first-rate facilities and a dedicated staff.  Its website is full of lofty language with talk of being "a caring community” and a school “that opens new doors for children whose families could not otherwise afford it”.

Unless apparently, the child has HIV.

The 13-year-old boy, described as an honors student, whose name isn’t being made public, and his family filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the school for discriminating against him.

The Hershey School said today in a statement that they can't admit him because “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.”

Say what? You have got to be kidding me.

The notion that you cannot place a kid who is HIV-positive in a residential school setting because he puts the community at risk is out of step with science, public health, and worst of all, real-world experience. 

Ryan White fought -- and won -- that battle in the mid-1980s, after the teen was expelled from his Indiana school for being HIV-positive. But all these years later, here we are again somehow.

We have known for a long time that you can work or live with someone with HIV with next to no risk. Sexual contact is the primary risk factor, but that is hardly a reason not to allow a boy to go to school.

Shame on the Milton Hershey School for denying this kid the chance the school has given to so many others with special needs for reasons that have no basis in fact.  Shame on the Milton Hershey School for discriminating against a young man who could bring much to their community.  Shame on the Milton Hershey School for invoking a rationale for discrimination that only resurrects the bigotry and fear that it has taken decades to get rid of. 

The school should do the right thing and do it today — admit this kid, hold a seminar soon on HIV and risk for their trustees, teachers and administrators and then renew their public commitment to “open their doors” to ALL who can both benefit and contribute to the school community by their presence.

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Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.