The family of an HIV-positive student denied admission to a Pennsylvania private school will receive a $700,000 settlement as part of an agreement reached in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Justice.
The 14-year-old boy, who went by the alias "Abraham Smith" in court documents, was turned away from the Milton Hershey School after officials there learned he had HIV. School officials at the time argued that the disease was a communicable one that posed a risk to the health of other students.
The mother of the student had sued the Milton Hershey School, located in Hershey, Pa., last November in federal court, claiming that denying her son admission violated the Americans With Disabilities Act. She has since decided not to enroll him in the school.
As part of the settlement, the mother will agree to drop all legal actions against the school. Milton Hershey officials also agreed to pay the federal government $15,000, in exchange for avoiding civil penalities.
While the government found that the school "did not act with malice or animus toward Abraham Smith or children with HIV," the settlement states, "the school cannot show that enrolling Abraham Smith or other children with HIV would pose a 'direct threat' to the health or safety of others."
Milton Hershey officials agreed to take several steps, agreeing to not deny admission or services to students with HIV in the future; draft new policies designed to ensure non-discrimination; train the schools' employees on the Americans With Disabilities Act and how to avoid treating students with HIV unfairly under the law; and to regularly report to the Justice Department on their compliance with those requirements.
The Milton Hershey school opened more than 100 years ago and serves students who are economically disadvantaged and face other challenges. Students live on campus full-time. In court documents, school officials originally had argued that admitting Smith would pose a risk to other students' health and safety, saying the school's primary concern was transmission of HIV through unprotected consensual sex with other students. At that time, Milton Hershey officials said that experience had taught them that "no child consistently makes responsible decisions which consider and protect the well-being of others." But last month, school officials said they had changed their mind after consulting with Justice Department officials about what was required under the law. They apologized to Smith and offered him entry.
The student, in a statement released today by the law firm representing him, voiced relief that the legal fight was over.
"It should have never been an issue in the first place," he said. Previously, "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."
Milton Hershey's president, Anthony Colistra, reiterated his remorse for the school initially denying Smith admission, and said he wished the teenager would have chosen to enroll, despite the controversy.
"I am sorry for the impact of our initial decision on Abraham and his mother," Colistra said, "We are fully committed to adopting the provisions outlined by the Department of Justice, and enhancing our service to children in need."