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Student with HIV sues private residential school for denied admission

By Michael Martinez and Chuck Johnston, CNN
updated 11:02 PM EST, Fri December 2, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Eighth grader with HIV was denied enrollment at Milton Hershey School
  • The Pennsylvania private residential school is named after chocolate maker
  • The boy alleges discrimination in a lawsuit timed with World AIDS Day
  • School says it's made "the right, legal decision under the law"

(CNN) -- A 13-year-old Pennsylvania boy is suing a private residential school for discrimination after it refused to admit him because he has HIV, his attorneys said.

The eighth grader, whose name wasn't disclosed in a federal lawsuit filed in Philadelphia, alleges that the Milton Hershey School in Hershey, Pennsylvania, "violated multiple anti-discrimination laws that protect the rights of people with HIV to remain free from unwarranted discrimination."

Chocolate maker Milton S. Hershey and his wife, Catherine, founded the school in 1909. The school provides a cost-free education and coeducational home for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students who come from a low-income family, the lawsuit said.

The youngster sought enrollment last February for this school year, the lawsuit said. The boy is an honor roll student and a student athlete, and his medication of five pills per day and one vitamin wouldn't impact his school schedule, the suit says.

HIV teen denied school admission

Executive director Ronda B. Goldfein of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, which is representing the boy and his mother, likened the case to Ryan White, who died at age 18 in 1990 and had been expelled from middle school when his HIV diagnosis became widely known.

"Like Ryan White, this young man is a motivated, intelligent kid who poses no health risk to other students, but is being denied an educational opportunity because of ignorance and fear about HIV and AIDS," said Goldfein, an attorney for the boy and mother.

The suit, filed Wednesday, was timed to coincide with Thursday's World AIDS Day, the law project said.

Goldfein told CNN that she was "stunned that in the third decade of AIDS (Milton Hershey School) still thinks it is too dangerous to admit a student who is HIV positive. It really shows how far we haven't come."

In response, the school said it had been intending to seek a federal court review of its decision denying enrollment to the boy, but the law project "took the adversarial action of filing a lawsuit against the school," said spokeswoman Connie McNamara.

"We believe we made the right, legal decision under the law," McNamara told CNN.

"The decision to deny enrollment was a challenging one for us to make. Like all our enrollment decisions, we need to balance our desire to serve the needs of an individual child seeking admission with our obligation to protect the health and safety of all 1,850 children already in our care," McNamara added in a statement.

McNamara said the case is nothing like Ryan White's.

"Milton Hershey School is not a day school, where students go home to their family at the end of the day. Instead, this is a unique home-like environment, a pre-K -12 residential school where children live in homes with 10-12 other students on our campus 24 hours a day, seven days a week," McNamara said.

"In order to protect our children in this unique environment, we cannot accommodate the needs of students with chronic communicable diseases that pose a direct threat to the health and safety of others. The reason is simple. We are serving children, and no child can be assumed to always make responsible decisions which protect the well being of others," McNamara said.

CNN's Khara Lewin contributed to this report.

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