Honors student, deemed a threat, was denied admission. AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, U.S. Department of Justice, school enter settlement agreement.
A 14-year-old ninth grader and his mother will receive $700,000 from the Milton Hershey School in a federal AIDS-discrimination lawsuit settlement announced today by the nonprofit AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania.
The school also will pay $15,000 in civil penalties assessed by the U.S. Department of Justice, which thoroughly investigated the complaint and concluded that the school violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The settlement 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 Milton Hershey School in Hershey, Pa., founded in 1909 by the chocolate magnate and his wife, had refused to enroll the honor-roll student because he has HIV, saying his presence would be a “direct threat” to the health and safety of other students. The school held to its position for more than a year, even after the Philadelphia-based public-interest law firm filed the suit on Nov. 31, 2011, in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, alleging violations of anti-discrimination laws.
On June 1, in denying the school’s request to move the case from Philadelphia to central Pennsylvania, U.S. District Judge C. Darnell Jones II wrote that “the issue involved in this case is … relevant to the lives of over one million HIV-infected people nationwide, many of whom are currently in congregate-living settings and are not creating a direct threat to others.”
Finally, on Aug. 6, the school’s president, Anthony J. Colistra, publicly apologized to the student and to his mother, offered to reconsider the boy’s application, and announced “a new Equal Opportunity Policy clearly stating that the School treats applicants with HIV no differently than any other applicants.” Colistra said the school also was “developing and providing mandatory training for staff and students on HIV issues and expanding our current training on Universal Precautions.”
The student and his mother have decided it is not in his best interest to attend the school, and they will use the money to provide other educational opportunities for him.
In announcing the settlement today, Ronda B. Goldfein Esq., executive director of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, said it removes any lingering doubt about whether someone with HIV poses a threat in everyday life.
“This case renewed a nationwide discussion about whether people with HIV represent a risk to others in casual settings,” Goldfein said. “The question has once again been definitively answered: They do not.”
Goldfein said a settlement of this size acknowledges that the pain of stigma is just as real as any other type of injury or harm inflicted upon a person. “In this case, our client suffered from learning that simply because he has a virus, he was considered a threat,” Goldfein said.
Sarah R. Schalman-Bergen Esq., who worked with Goldfein on the lawsuit, said the Americans with Disabilities Act and other federal and state laws clearly “prohibit discrimination on the basis of a real or even a perceived disability, including having HIV.” She added that the National Association of State Boards of Education has decreed that “the presence of a person living with HIV infection or diagnosed with AIDS poses no significant risk to others in school, day care, or school athletic settings.”
Identified in court filings by a pseudonym to protect his privacy, “Abraham Smith” is a public school scholar-athlete who lives in Delaware County, Pa, near Philadelphia.
“I am very glad this is over,” Abraham said today. “It should have never been an issue in the first place. I will never recoup my eighth-grade year in school. Though I had a good one academically, I was too engulfed with this … to enjoy the fun of going to high school. Now it’s time for me to start healing internally and my mother said that will come in time also.”
From the day it was filed, the case generated massive media coverage and sparked a firestorm of outrage. An online petition [http://chn.ge/P5Qjs6] at the website Change.org gathered nearly 30,000 signatures demanding that the school issue a public apology. In an emotional plea [http://huff.to/RL9BY1] headlined Shame on the Milton Hershey School!, the actress and social activist Mia Farrow wrote in the Huffington Post: “Abraham’s plight reminds me of the 1980s when Ryan White, a child with AIDS, was not allowed to attend school. It is remarkable that 30 years later, we are still dealing with the same ignorance and discriminatory practices.” Protesters demonstrated outside the Hershey Co.’s flagship store in New York’s Times Square in March and outside a Hershey Co. stockholder meeting in May. The school is funded by the Hershey Trust Co., the chocolate company’s largest shareholder.
The landmark settlement is the latest victory in the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania’s 24-year history of activism on behalf of people with HIV and AIDS. In 1994, after a Philadelphia ambulance crew refused to touch a patient with HIV, the firm won the nation’s first settlement of an AIDS-discrimination case under the Americans with Disabilities Act, forcing the city to begin training more than 2,000 firefighters and emergency medical workers to prevent discrimination against people with AIDS or HIV in medical emergencies.
Click here for a copy of the settlement agreement.