Most of us have heard about the 13 year old boy that was denied entrance to the Milton Hershey School because of his HIV status. The administrators of the school claim that he’s ‘a danger to the other students’. Whoa, that’s all we needed to hear. As people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA’s) we go buck wild when the word stigma is uttered. In this case rightfully so!
Every once in awhile, such as with this instance, someone does something so outrageous that we have to take a stand. ALL of us, not just activists and organizations. We cannot allow this to occur as the consequences are too far reaching and damaging not only for this one child but for all people living with HIV and AIDS.
The 13 year old HIV positive, straight ‘A’ student wasn’t denied entrance because there were more qualified or deserving applicants. According to the school itself he was denied for one reason and one reason only –because he is HIV positive making him “a threat to the health and safety of the other 1850 students”. That’s it, no other reason.
This kid, a seemingly happy, strong, healthy, well adjusted kid (I gather from comments I’ve heard about him and from his interview) has really been hurt by all of this. He hadn’t realized previously that he was ‘a danger for others to be around’, a pariah that shouldn’t be amongst the ‘normal’ kids. He’s been damaged unjustly and MHS should pay for that. My heart goes out to him. I hope he realizes how wrong his judges are. I hope he can overcome these new feelings of being unwanted but I know he’ll never unlearn this lesson of hate and ignorance. It’s with him for good.
As for people with HIV/AIDS in general, the damage has been immense which is why it’s so important to confront MHS and confront the whole issue of PLWHA’s being dangerous to be near. This decision and the subsequent defense of their words and actions have given a platform to HIV discrimination and hate. The comments on news stories about this issue could have been written in the late 80’s, early 90’s. Although many people are educated and regard people with HIV as safe and the same as everyone else, almost as many are extremely ignorant about HIV, HIV transmission and people with HIV/AIDS. For much more of the general U.S. population then most of us realized, despite the scientific advances of the past 15 years, people with HIV and AIDS are still considered unworthy, dangerous and below second class citizens.
This is an issue that we need to confront BUT we need to confront it the right way. This is a critical situation for people with HIV and AIDS. If we are going to succeed in overcoming the social damage that’s been done by this decision on MHS’ part, we have to fight strategically. Simply saying that discrimination and stigmatization is wrong is not enough. We need to address this in a scientific and logical manner reverses a purely emotional and ethical one.
MHS claims that there is too much of a risk of this kid having sex with another student. They say that teenagers have sex and although it is not allowed at the school, it cannot be fully prevented. Yes, I’m sure this is true.
The fact is that with the use of HAART (HIV medications) and a low viral load, there’s a 96% decrease in HIV transmission. This means that the chance of HIV transmission, if you have a low viral load, is almost non existent. The very large majority of people with HIV inform potential sexual partners of their status. Most protect their partner from infection to the best of their own personal ability (either with condoms or disclosure and low viral load). When the risk of transmission is deemed personally acceptable, it is normally the decision of both consenting, educated individuals, rarely does a person with HIV purposely and willfully attempt to infect someone. Many couldn’t even if they tried. Transmission with a relevant viral load is about 1 in 900 although there are several determining factors involved including how high or low the viral load is, circumcision, if other STD’s are present etc that could increase or lower this risk. The rates are even lower for female to male transmission.
The likelihood of HIV transmission through horseplay, sports, washing dishes, fighting, scratching, biting, kissing, casual contact and accidents are exactly the same for these 1850 students housed at MHS as anywhere else… Zero! The fact is that there has never been even one case of transmission under these circumstances reported. Ever. The only way a person can be infected with HIV without sexual contact, is using a contaminated needle, through breast milk or vertical transmission (mother to child) or is if an HIV positive person had a gushing open wound and pressed it firmly against the blood gushing wound of someone. Then yes, there is a possibility of transmission. But for the life of me, I can’t think of a single reason or situation where that would occur.
MHS claims that because they would not be allowed to disclose his HIV status, other students would not be able to adequately protect themselves. We all know that lots of people know the right thing to do but don’t always do it. Especially kids, but with young people having one of the highest rates of new infections, every individual even teenagers’, needs to be protect themselves sexually. In the end, it takes two to have sex and the best we can hope for is people will make educated decisions to protect themselves. Ultimately their choices are theirs and everyone is responsible to make their own decisions and hold themselves accountable for those decisions. Teen-ages included. We cannot remove all risks from life regardless of ethics, human rights and the well being of those other then ourselves. We just have to hope our kids make the right decisions.
MHS also contends that special accommodations would have to be made for an HIV positive student. This is simply not true. He can live in the same home as any other students. His only requirements are his medication being supervised by an adult (school nurse or student home parent) and approximately four Doctors visits per year unless more were needed
Is it a possibility that another student may become infected? Yes. Of course there is a very small chance. There is also a possibility that a student will be killed by a car. Statistically a much greater chance. By their logic, MHS should ban all cars from their campus. There’s a possibility of getting struck by lightening too.
If this decision is allowed to stand, this will set a precedent for all boarding schools and dormitories in the country to say that they will not allow people with HIV to live in their facilities. We cannot let this happen.
MHS supporters claim that because these kids live in a 24 hour, 7 days a week, year long home type environment that the normal rules, ethical considerations and safety considerations are not applicable. They also insist that either is the Americans with Disabilities Act which prohibits the discrimination of people with HIV.
The $60,000 question is what makes them so different then any other boarding school or home across the country? Do the kids in MHS have any different considerations that make the risk of transmission higher under their roof then any where else? The answer, of course, is no.
So exactly under what circumstances could this child transmit the virus? All of the following conditions must occur:
1. The 13 year old would have to decide to have sex with another student at MHS.
2. Although most teenagers' cannot be depended on to be responsible as MHS contends, this particular teenager is an intelligent, straight ‘A’ student who has been raised knowing that he is HIV positive. He is very well educated on safe sex issues. So, the second circumstance that would have to occur is that he would ignore his moral obligation to protect others which has been imbedded in him to protect his partner and himself (legally and from possible HIV re-infection and other STDs) by deciding to have unprotected sex.
3. His partner would also have to decide to have unprotected sex.
4. His viral load would have to be over 400-1500. Numerous studies show that infection with a viral load below these amounts is rare. The lower the viral load, the less chance of infection to an average 96% reduction.
Being that he is on ARV’s he would either have to fail all available therapies or the timing would have to be such that he had failed therapy and his viral load increased high enough to be a significant risk before his doctor did blood work to determine this factor and switch regimens.
5. Transmission would have to occur, which with a detectable viral load which is about a 1 in 900 chance. With a low or undetectable viral load the chance of infection is negligible.
MHS’ response to how and why they feel they can get away with ignoring both the scientific and moral advancement and enlightenment that has occurred during the past 15 years? Because they’re special. Because we don’t understand the school. Because they’re privately funded. Because they have to protect their students.
During this whole process I gained a deep respect for MHS in regard to their mission and what they have accomplished. They have helped many kids who otherwise would not have had a chance. I feel I approached this whole thing with an open mind, believing that there are two sides to every story. Believing that there must be some bit of information I don’t know that would justify MHS’ decision. I listened to what people said in MHS’ defense. I went to their FB page and read the comments both pro and against MHS. I engaged in conversations with MHS alumni, staff, students, parents of students and supporters. I tried to be respectful until an individual would give me a reason not to, which was almost always. I learned about the school, their procedures, and their history. I watched tons of interviews and news broadcasts and read lots of articles and blogs.
But after everything, it is clear that no, there is nothing that justifies this clear cut discrimination. I have to wonder what is taught at this school for so many of its students, graduates, staff and administrators to think the way they do and hold the belief system they portray.
To my knowledge none of the students have publicly spoken out against this decision and none of the staff has resigned in protest. This along with the fact the 61% of the students who graduate never finish college, despite it being paid for them, it taking 60 years for MHS to allow minorities and women in the school and the fact that they also deny people with diseases such as MS, herpes and HEP C - how can I not wonder what kind of values they teach there.
The sheer amount of comments such as "leave our school, alone", "you don’t know anything about our school" (although most people who can read and do basic research on the internet can find out just about anything and everything in respect to the school) and the attitude of MHS being special, above the law, and not accountable to anyone outside of themselves is offense, strange, and honestly extremely questionable and quite pathetic.
There also appears to be an undying loyalty to which at first I respected but now have to question. How does an intelligent, thinking human being ‘go along’ with something that they believe is morally wrong due to loyalty? Not everyone at MHS can agree with this decision. Is it really loyalty or just fear of losing the benefits they’ve been given, their own personal security or the respect of their peers? Out of 1850 students, staff, the board of directors and the administrators, how is it possible that not one person has spoken out against the school? How can that many people possibly be of the same mind regarding in issue that so many people are divided on?
I guess that when you have an unending stream of wealth (approximately 7.5 billion dollars) you feel you’re above the requirements, obligations and humanity the rest of the country abides by.
At this point I ask that all people HIV positive or not, support the nationwide ban on all Hershey products until the Hershey Company demands a reversal of this decision; condemn the remarks made by MHS, particularly their view that this child, and thus all people with HIV, are a "danger to the health and safety of others"; fire those involved in the decision; initiate HIV sensitivity training for MHS employees, staff, students and most importantly apologize to this young man for making him feel (in the child’s words) “ not like himself anymore”.
MHS maintains that the Hershey Co. has no say, or control, in regards to this situation. This is not true. MHS maintains a controlling share of the company. If the Hershey Co. board of directors threaten to resign and some of the stock holders threaten to sell their stock in Hershey, MHS will be forced to reverse their decision.
The damage done to this strong, beautiful boy is obviously the saddest part of this whole mess. To him I’d like to say that I hope he can put this all behind him. That there are over 33 million of us. As much hate, ignorance and intolerance that’s he’s witnessed throughout this, I hope he knows that there are a greater number of people who love, respect and welcome him. We will stand with him always.
I’d also like to say that I hope he does not choose to go to this school in the end. The benefits of the education they offer are most definitely not worth the trade off of having to deal with ignorance and stupidity on a daily basis. He should not subject himself to having to be around people who don’t have the moral fortitude to take a stand when someone is being discriminated against and hurt. MHS, regardless of any good they may have done in the past, do not deserve this kid.
I’d also like to point out to MHS that they will likely be responsible for numerous new HIV infections occurring. They put their students and all HIV negative people in more jeopardy of infection with their actions. The number one reason that people don’t get tested for HIV, and thus not get treatment reducing the risk of HIV spreading, is because of the fear of being discriminated against and stigmatized. This is exactly the atmosphere MHS has succeeded in dramatically contributing to. Good job!
I have heard many of my fellow HIV supporters say that we should forgive MHS. They are ignorant and we need to educate them. They do a lot of good for disenfranchised kids. Personally, I believe at this point that they have been educated extensively about HIV and HIV transmission. They’ve heard our issues and they simply don’t care. Sometimes people should be made to live with the consequences of their actions. They have lost the respect they had earned by their own doing. I do not believe they deserve forgiveness.
To help fight this injustice: