School president Anthony Colistra said in the statement, “Milton Hershey School will no longer refuse admission to otherwise qualified students who have HIV.”
In the statement, Colistra said the school had extended an apology to the student who had applied last year, known as Abraham Smith, in a July 12 letter, as well as instituting an “Equal Opportunity Policy clearly stating that the school treats applicants with HIV no differently than any other applicants” and new training for staff and students on HIV issues.
In December 2011, the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit on behalf of Smith on the grounds that the school’s refusal violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Ronda Goldfein, executive director of ALP, said that despite this “important step in the case,” the lawsuit is moving forward.
“If we think about how society works, and how the law works, there are laws and we have to follow them,” Goldfein said. “We cannot say, ‘Well, you know, this is the law and I’m not going to follow it and when I get caught I’m going to follow it.’”
Goldfein said the school, which is open to youth from low-income families, could have responded differently when they received Smith’s application.
“When we told them there’s no medical or scientific basis for excluding him, they could have done any number of things to figure out that he didn’t present a threat at the school,” she said. “They could have talked to the [Penn State] Hershey Medical Center, a world-class medical center 3 miles away — they would have told them.”
In his statement, Colistra said the school thought it made the right decision, then reconsidered based on guidance from the Department of Justice.
“Although we believed that our decisions regarding Abraham 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.”
Goldfein said Smith, who is now 14 and going into the ninth grade, is considering if he wants to attend Milton Hershey in the fall.
“Over the last year, he’s had a lot of time to think about it,” she said. “It was hurtful enough when the school excluded him, [essentially] saying he was dangerous enough to have to protect 1,800 students from him. He’s thinking about it and whether he’ll feel safe.”
Goldfein said that a status conference for the lawsuit is scheduled for Sept. 19 and that they are moving forward with the discovery phase.
The school was founded in 1909 by Milton S. Hershey, creator of the Hershey’s candy company, and is funded by the Milton Hershey Trust, which exceeds $7 billion in assets.