Milton Hershey School announces $700K settlement with HIV-positive boy denied enrollment

By Jon Campisi | Sep 14, 2012

A Pennsylvania boarding school that was accused in a federal lawsuit of denying

admittance to an HIV-positive teenage boy has announced a settlement in the case.

The Milton Hershey School will pay $700,000 to the 14-year-old Southeastern Pennsylvania boy and his mother to end the discrimination complaint, the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania stated in a Sept. 12 announcement.

The school, founded by the chocolate magnate of the same name in the early 20th Century, was sued in November of last year by plaintiffs identified only as “Mother Smith” and “Abraham Smith.”

The suit accused the school of keeping the boy from enrolling because he has the virus that causes AIDS; school officials voiced concerned about the dangers of having an HIV-positive student on a campus where sexually activity has been known to take place.

The lawsuit was filed on Nov. 30, 2011, in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, although the defendant moved to have the case transferred to central Pennsylvania, a request subsequently denied by U.S. District Judge C. Carnell Jones, II.

On Aug. 6, as the litigation was pending at the federal courthouse in Philadelphia, Milton Hershey President Anthony J. Colistra unexpectedly issued a public apology to “Smith” and his mother, conceding the school should not be treating HIV-positive students differently than other enrollees and potential students.

“Milton Hershey School will no longer refuse admission to otherwise qualified students who have HIV,” Colistra said in a statement at the time.

In his statement, Colistra had gone on to state that while the school initially believed its decisions regarding Smith’s 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.”

In this week’s statement announcing the settlement, AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania attorneys said Smith and his mother have decided it is not in the boy’s best interest to attend the school, even though school officials had since reversed their position and offered him a place at the residential institution.

In a statement released through his lawyers, Smith, a public school scholar-athlete who lives in Delaware County, just outside of Philadelphia, and uses a pseudonym to protect his privacy, said he is glad the litigation has come to an end.

“It should have never been an issue in the first place,” he said. “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,” he continued. “Now it’s time for me to start healing internally and my mother said that will come in time also.”

Attorney Ronda B. Goldfein, executive director of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, said the settlement removes “any lingering doubt” about whether or not an HIV-positive person 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 in a statement. “The question has once again been definitively answered: They do not.”

Goldfein went on to say that a settlement of this size acknowledges that the pain of stigma is just as real as any other type of injury inflicted on someone.

Under the settlement agreement, the Milton Hershey School will be issuing a new equal opportunity policy to include HIV and will be supplementing its education and training for staff and students on the Americans with Disabilities Act, HIV, universal precautions and other topics, the school announced on its website.

The Justice Department will monitor the school’s compliance for four years.

In his own statement, Colistra, the school’s president, said he is sorry Smith and his mother have not decided to take the school up on its offer to now admit the boy.

“He and his mother have decided that Abraham will not attend, and we respect their decision,” Colistra said. “I am sorry for the impact of our initial decision on Abraham and his mother. We are fully committed to adopting the provisions outlined by the Department of Justice, and enhancing our service to children in need.”

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