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Bioethicist: School makes right call in offering to admit HIV-positive student

Sweet. The Milton Hershey School, a world-renowned residential school for lower income and socially disadvantaged students, has finally cried "uncle" on its controversial rejection of an HIV-positive student.

The pre-K to 12th grade boarding school made a decision last fall that reached back to the fear-filled days of the mid-1980s: It would not take him for fear he might put the other kids at risk -- this, despite the fact that the boy is a strong student who could benefit from the opportunity that Hershey could provide to him. (The school was founded in 1909 and is owned by a trust that holds the controlling interest in the giant candy company that shares its name.)

A lawsuit was filed, as it should have been, for a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Ever since the legal battle that exploded when Ryan White got expelled from his Indiana middle school in 1984 for being HIV-positive, it has been clear that excluding children from school, any school, due to their being HIV-positive is wrong. Careful study has shown that kids with HIV do not pose any serious risks to their fellow students or staff -- and that is why it is illegal to discriminate against kids or anyone else with HIV.

Now the head of Milton Hershey has announced they will admit the boy to school. They sent him an apology, too. The Department of Justice in Washington welcomed the school's decision, since the Hershey School was almost certainly breaking the law.

Still the school president, Anthony Colistra, is not going down without a fight. In reversing the decision, he issued a statement that defended the school's previous denial of admission to the HIV-positive teenager.

"Although we believed that our decisions regarding [his] application were appropriate, we acknowledge that the application of federal law to our unique residential setting was a novel and difficult issue. The U.S. Department of Justice recently advised us that it disagrees with how we evaluated the risks and applied the law. We have decided to accept this guidance."

Good call.

Had the lawsuit gone forward, the kid who could not get in might well have come away with enough money to keep a good portion of the student body amply supplied with Hershey’s kisses for a long time.

Still, the grudging tone of the decision to let the boy in reveals that there is still work to be done at the Hershey School.  A symposium to air out all the issues and points of view would be a great idea. And I can think of a pretty good person to serve as the keynote speaker: the boy who had to sue for the right to be there.


Bioethicist: Shame on school for rejecting boy with HIV