The 1980's was a frightening time for many in America. Particularly so for those who were/are members of the LGBT community and others who suffered from any number of illnesses where blood transfusions were or might be necessary. Initially known as the "gay cancer," HIV/AIDs quickly came to symbolize the single greatest threat to not just gay men and women, but to ever sexually active person. During the early years of what has been for a number of years referred to as a "global pandemic," little was known about how the virus was transmitted from one person to the next. As a result, individuals, organizations, businesses and many other entities responded in many instances with knee-jerk reactions on how to address the issue of those individuals infected with HIV/AIDs. Rampant discrimination and active and blatant ostracization and oppression of those suffering from the then-100% fatal disease was accepted and even promoted by some.
This unwarranted sense of fear of those who were infected continued for many years (many would say it still exists more readily than most would like to admit or accept), even after medical researchers and doctors discovered that transmission was only possible by direct contact with the blood supply of an infected individual with the blood supply of an uninfected individual. Despite America being told via a nearly unprecendented media storm of information, the result of tireless effort by many activists and AIDs support organizations (ASO's), the paranoia over possible infection continued to be prevalent years later.
During the 1980's a teenager named Ryan White became the virtual 'poster boy' for those afflicted with HIV/AIDs, as he was forced to leave the junior high school he was attending because school officials believed he posed a significant threat to the remaining student body. Despite the nation slowly learning that someone with HIV did not present any risk of transmission as the result of casual, and even some limited intimate, contact, citizens of the United States remained seriously divided as to whether White's school acted responsibly, or reprehensibly. White's legal case was ultimately decided in his favor, requiring that his school allow him to attend classes. Such legal precedence would, seemingly, only have since been strengthened by passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act (1990), along with a more recent package of amendments to the original legislation that effectively widened the scope of influence over what was deemed discriminatory, liberalizing (to some extent) what a disabled person would be able to expect/require of any potential (or current) employer or other public accomodation. However, the Milton Hershey School believes otherwise. In fact, their denial for admission to the school of a 13-yr. old who is HIV-positive is rather conclusive that despite legal protections afforded those are HIV-positive or who have been classified as having AIDs, along with the incredible medical advancements that have produced medications which reduce exponentially the threat of possible exposure (even through intimate contact) as they reduce levels of the virus in many of those infected to levels at which doctors refer to them as "undetectable," suggests that the school cares little about the facts about the science behind HIV/AIDs nor the legal responsibility it bears toward potential students who are HIV-positive.
Officials at the school offered in defense of their actions denying the 13-yr. old admission, that,
“We understand that the risks presented by an HIV-positive individual who is on medication are low,” the school said in a recent statement posted on its website. “Taking all these and other factors in consideration, including the fact that we would be prohibited by law from informing our community of the young man’s HIV-positive status, we concluded that the risk was significant, and rose to the level of a direct threat to the health and safety of others.”
Ironically, the possibility that a student might be exposed to the HIV virus while conducting themself as a student is not the school's concern. Instead, they are most concerned about the fact that students may well engage in sexual intercourse. And that despite the univeral procautions against the transmission of bloodborne pathogens that all public accomodations are required by law to follow, students could find themselves exposed to the virus.
It is difficult to decide which is most reprehensible about the school's behavior: their blatant and unnecessary discrimination against a potential student who is HIV-positive, or the fact that they consider themselves responsible for every Hershey student's sexual conduct. If the latter is the case, then one could come to the conclusion that should an unexpected pregnancy of a Hershey student, or one that was caused by a Hershey student should occur, that the school would then agree to providing any/everything needed for the care of the expectant mother and the child before and after the child's birth. However, it's HIGHLY unlikely that that is the case. No doubt, if a pregnancy occurs the school most likely is of the opinion that while it may concede to making 'reasonable accomodations' to the expectant mother so that she could continue her studies while the pregnancy progresses, it in no way accepts any measure of responsibility for the student's condition. Which gives Americans reason to ask, "Then why is it different for the kid with HIV? Why consider sexual conduct that results in pregnancy NOT the school's responsibility, but that which might be engaged-in by someone who is HIV-positive is within their purview?"
Let's face it: HIV/AIDs discrimination still exists. Ask anyone who is afflicted with the virus and they will no doubt quickly accede to the notion that although federal law makes such discrimination illegal, it's still around, and it's just as ugly as it has ever been. And in a strange twist of irony, while Americans find themselves in an era where those who embrace a conservative philosophy of government believe government at all levels, especially in areas like education, tries to provide too much to citizens, it's a private educational institution, one largely removed from many of the fiscal ties the federal and state governments have on their public counterparts, that is exhibiting blatant discriminatory practices.
HIV/AIDs discrimination is offensive enough when it happens to an adult with the disease. But such behavior reaches an even lower level of depravity and reprehensiveness when it targets a child.
The Milton Hershey School should apologize to the student denied admission. And the student should be allowed to attend the school, if he still desires to do so. Furthermore, the school should willingly agree to pay all of the costs associated with the student's attending private school, whether that school is Hershey, or some other learning institution. The school should also make some sort of public apology to all Americans who have been diagnosed with HIV/AIDs, stating clearly and unapologetically that their behavior was not appropriate. That they failed to appreciate the challenges someone who is HIV-positive might face, but instead ignored those possibilities and rathe embraced a fairly unsophisticated and insufficiently educated position on the question of whether or not to extend admission to an HIV-positive student.
Schools should be this nation's, and the world's, "citadels of learning." Institutions dedicated to providing the very best education possible for students. This could not be more true than it is today, when a growing number of young persons who identify themselves as gay are resorting to suicide in order to free themselves from the constant threat and mistreatment suffered at the hands of bullies. Those who are HIV-positive experience the isolation that is a common factor in the lives of members of the LGBT community, only it is usually more severe, direct, and even more harmful. Hershey could stand in the way of the further marginalization of those with HIV/AIDs. The school could also send a loud and clear message to educators everywhere that all students, regardless of their station in life, should be treated with the respect afforded to all human beings. It is 2011, after all. Nearly 30 years after the virus first 'officially' reared its ugly head, all Americans can and should do better by those who are HIV-positive. And those who are HIV-positive or have been diagnosed with AIDs should be able to expect all institutions to respect them first, foremost and always as human beings.