HARRISBURG, Pa. — A Pennsylvania school for lower income and socially disadvantaged students said Monday it will now treat HIV-positive applicants the same as all others and has offered admission to a previously rejected Philadelphia-area teenager.
A lawyer for the boy, whose pending lawsuit against the Milton Hershey School alleges violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, said he was considering the offer.
School president Anthony Colistra issued a statement that defended the school’s previous decisions regarding the HIV-positive teenager, using the same pseudonym for him as does his federal lawsuit, Abraham Smith. He said the admissions offer, and an apology, were issued to him last month.
“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,” Colistra said. “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.”
The boy’s lawyer, Ronda Goldfein, said the school’s actions did not end the lawsuit, and that the offer of admission for the coming year was being assessed by the rising ninth-grader.
“We’re certainly delighted that the school understands their obligations under the law and intends to follow them,” Goldfein said. “This case is not settled. This is one very important piece of it.”
The most recent activity in the lawsuit, filed late last year in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, occurred last week when the judge scheduled a pretrial conference for September.
“We couldn’t be happier that they’re doing the right thing, but if you turn a blind eye to a law, you’re responsible for the harm caused while you were turning that blind eye,” Goldfein said.
Colistra said the private boarding school also is developing training on HIV-related issues for its employees and students.
In Washington, Justice Department spokeswoman Nanda Chitre welcomed the school’s decision and noted that federal law protects people with HIV from discrimination.
Milton Hershey School officials previously said he was denied admission because a chronic communicable disease would pose a threat to the health and safety of the students.
The school is financed by a trust that holds the controlling interest in candy manufacturing giant The Hershey Co.