Private school rightly pays settlement after law suit
Published: Wednesday, September 26, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, September 26, 2012 18:09
The AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania and the Milton Hershey School recently settled on a law suit concerning violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act(ADA). The AIDS Law Project sued the private K-12 school in Hershey, PA last year for discontinuing a 14-year-old boy’s application because he was HIV-positive. Although the school originally defended its decision on the grounds that the boy would pose a direct threat to the safety of those around him, it reversed its policy this August. The boy and his mother ultimately declined the school’s overdue enrollment offer. As a result of the dispute, the Milton Hershey School will pay the boy and his mother a settlement of $700,000. In addition, $15,000 in civil penalties. The agreement also requires it to provide HIV training to its students, faculty and staff. That seems like a fair punishment. Still, the board’s concern for the safety of other students is legitimate. What’s more, the school demonstrates an unparalleled level of inclusivity in the world of private education—so its good reputation should remain intact.
The ADA clearly protects HIV-positive individuals from discrimination in schools and in the workforce. The casual environment of a school lowers the direct threat the boy presents to almost imperceptible levels, so there’s no reason to prevent a qualified student from attending the institution. And fortunately, the HIV-training program will allow the school to better accommodate the needs of HIV-positive students in the future. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the dispute need not tarnish the school’s reputation in any way. The Milton Hershey School, one of the richest in the world, provides free education for a diverse set of students from low-income backgrounds; one can hardly argue that the school dismissed the boy’s application because of his family or upbringing. This was not an issue of the social stigma surrounding HIV.
That aside, although the ADA does offer protection to HIV-positive individuals, it makes an exception in the case of contagious diseases that pose a “direct threat” to the surrounding community. The threat level in a school environment is low, since HIV is only contagious through the contact of bodily fluid. You would have to drink 10 gallons of saliva to contract HIV, and that’s probably not going to happen. But 14-year-old boys love roughhousing, and it is reasonable to expect them to get bloodied up on occasion. The admissions board had a right to think about how the boy’s illness might put others at risk. What if he did infect another student? How would the families of other students respond? Even though it was unlikely that the boy would pass along his infection, the school’s concern for the safety of its students was still a legitimate worry. It’s also important to remember that the school changed its policy to offer the boy enrollment and accommodate HIV-positive students. Even though the boy declined the offer, the change in policy still revealed the school’s willingness to adapt to new circumstances and demonstrate even greater inclusivity. The Milton Hershey School exhibits a unique display of philanthropy in primary and secondary education, and the lawsuit certainly has not changed that.