Hershey School Settles HIV Discrimination Lawsuit

A 14-year-old boy and his mother will receive $700,000 from the settlement of an AIDS discrimination lawsuit against a private boarding school that refused his admission because he is HIV-positive.

Last year the AIDS Law Project sued Milton Hershey School in federal court for failing to admit the teen due to his HIV status, claiming it violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and state law.  Following this, the U.S. Department of Justice opened an investigation of whether the school’s decision violated the ADA.  Indeed, the Department of Justice found that by denying the boy’s admission, the school did violate provisions of the ADA, according to the settlement.

In August, after receiving guidance from the Justice Department, the school announced that they changed their position and would no longer deny admission to otherwise qualified applicants who have HIV. The school offered the boy admission for the fall semester.

The settlement was announced Wednesday by the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania and the Milton Hershey School which is financed by a trust that holds the controlling interest in the Hershey Company candy manufacturer. The settlement is subject to court approval because it involves a child.

The school will pay $700,000 to the 14-year-old boy and his mother. In addition, the school for poor and socially disadvantaged students must pay $15,000 in civil penalties and provide HIV training for students and staff members. The settlement also requires the school to provide HIV training for its staff and students and to pay an undisclosed amount of attorney’s fees to the AIDS Law Project.

The Philadelphia-based AIDS Law Project sued the school in federal court last year after it refused to enroll the boy, an honor roll student, on the grounds that he would be a threat to other students’ health and safety.

The school initially defended its decision, saying it was difficult but appropriate under the circumstances.’

“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 December after the lawsuit was filed.

The school was told that the boy didn’t require any special accommodations and medication controlled his HIV so school studies would not be affected.

In August the school reversed its policy and announced it would treat applicants with HIV the same as others.

The school offered to admit the boy but the boy and his mother decided he would seek other educational opportunities instead.

The Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which says it provides medical care to people with HIV and AIDS all over the world and contributed money for the boy’s legal defense, welcomed news of the settlement.

“No doubt, advocacy aided this young man’s quest for justice,” foundation president Michael Weinstein said of the settlement.

Around Easter time, the foundation staged protests in San Francisco, New York City and Hershey, calling for a boycott of Hershey’s candy and asking the public to send the company a message: “No kisses for Hershey.”

About 25 years ago, Ryan White, a teenager from Indiana, was expelled from middle school because he was HIV-positive. A lengthy battle with his school ensued and White became a national “hero” and worked hard until the end of his short life to educate the country about this terrible disease.  After his death in 1990, the U.S. Congress passed a major piece of legislation named in his honor, the Ryan White CARE Act, which provides funding for HIV/AIDS programs for low-income Americans.

The free school in Pennsylvania was founded as an orphanage in 1909 and is funded by profits of the Hershey Co., chocolate giant. The school enrolls 1,850 students from pre-k through 12th grade and funds its’ operations with the income of a $9 billion trust fund.

Thanks to Ryan White’s legacy, most Americans learned so much about AIDS/HIV.  Most importantly, Ryan wanted everyone to realize that you cannot spread HIV in a classroom or by befriending someone who is HIV positive.  Despite this, the staff at Hershey School still discriminated against a teenage, honor-roll student by denying his admission to the free private school.

Do you think the verdict was fair?

For more information, contact a Gacovino & Lake attorney at 1-800-246-HURT (4878).

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