Photo Credit: Courtesy Hershey Community Archives
When John Doe (not his real name), an honors student who plays sports and studies several languages applied to the Milton Hershey School in Hershey, Pennsylvania, he seemed like a dream student. But, the private boarding school for low-income students rejected his application because the 13-year-old boy has been HIV-positive his entire life.
Now, John Doe and his family are suing for discrimination in the hopes of still getting him enrolled.
The school's defense, as argued by a spokesperson on Anderson Cooper 360, is that its students live full-time on the campus. "We're a home for these students and we have a parental responsibility," she said. And, while the Milton Hershey School has made enough progress that it is not claiming to be worried about John Doe infecting other students with a toothbrush or a hug (as schools did with HIV-positive kids in the 1980s), school officials say they are worried about what might happen if the boy engages in sexual activity with another student. "Because this student has an active, chronic and communicable disease [...] he poses a direct threat to other students," the spokesperson told Cooper.
Except, here's the thing: Cooper reports that Doe is on medication that reduces his chance of transmitting the disease, even via unprotected sex, by 96 percent.
And here's the other thing: Since when is it ethical to reject a student based on a purely hypothetical situation -- that he and his classmates might do something dangerous (i.e. have unprotected sex) once he gets on campus?
It would be unfair for the school to reject a student because he could hypothetically steal his roommate's iPod. It would also be counterproductive, because the school would have to reject almost every student -- after all, who doesn't want an iPod? But wanting an iPod doesn't make stealing an iPod a foregone conclusion. And having a sexually communicable disease doesn't guarantee that the disease will be transmitted.
In fact, my analogy only goes so far -- because though we know John Doe is HIV positive, we don't really know whether or not he wants to have sex. The Milton Hershey School is essentially saying it has to assume the worst (that he would have sex, and unprotected, disease-transmitting sex at that!) to protect its students -- but in doing so, it's making some pretty unfounded assumptions about John Doe's sexuality. Last time I checked, we're still innocent until proven guilty in these United States -- and a medical diagnosis cannot be used to confer guilt.
"What are you telling HIV positive young people about their ability to be in a community?" Anderson Cooper asked the Milton Hershey spokesperson. And it's a great question: What kind of message does it send to John Doe, to other children living with HIV and really, to all of the students at the Milton Hershey School when you say that John Doe is not welcome despite his academic and extracurricular achievements?
The school could have viewed John Doe's enrollment as an opportunity to teach all of their students about tolerance and the kind of sex education that they can actually use. Instead it chose to send the message that people with a disease like HIV should be avoided and discriminated against. That does a disservice to John Doe, to be sure -- and it also doesn't help their 2,000 students who will eventually graduate and make their way in the real world.