26 Years Later History Repeats Itself

By: Tara Bates, LMSW

Twenty six years after Ryan White was denied the opportunity to go to school, history is repeating itself once more (CLICK HERE FOR MORE DETAILS). In 1984, Ryan White was barred from attending his middle school due to his HIV positive status. Ryan White was the “poster child” for HIV advocacy in the 1980’s. Due to lack of education and information regarding HIV infection and “contamination,” a petition was signed to bar this 13 year old from attending school with other children. Eventually this decision was over ruled, and this was the beginning of anti-discrimination movement against people who are infected with HIV.

Sure, some might argue that Ryan White being discriminated against was more acceptable in the 80’s due to little information about HIV, but 26 years later we have scientific evidence that dispels the myths about HIV. With all of the information regarding HIV transmission, how would anyone even blink an eye anymore about allowing their child to attend school with another child who is HIV positive? It’s preposterous, and a violation of the ADA (American’s with Disabilities Act), to discriminate against people who are HIV positive. So why is it happening again?

A few days ago a 13-year-old, honors student, in PA, was denied admission into a school based on his HIV
positive status. The official statement from the Milton Hershey School reads “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. That is why, after careful review and analysis, we determined we could not put our children at risk.” After reading this statement I can’t help but wonder who decided that HIV is a direct threat to the health and safety of others in a school setting?

This discrimination case is even further compounded by the fact that the Milton Hershey School is a free residential boarding school. It focuses on furthering the education of students who come from families experiencing social-economic issues, and may be struggling.

Remember what it felt like to be 13 again, and the judgmental comments and remarks that peers made in middle school. Now compound those emotions with coming from a family who does not have much money, and has most likely been enduring hardships. Imagine how exciting and relieving it might feel to think you will be accepted into a school that will pay for all of your room and board and provide you with a safe new life. Then a group of people, decide that the vision of a life full of new opportunities, is not a vision they are willing to offer you because they decided that you are a “direct threat.”

Let’s dissect the statement that the Milton Hershey School posted on their website, “no child can be assumed to always make responsible decisions which protect the well-being of others.” Is the school assuming that this 13 year old child is going to have sex at their school, and unprotected sex at that? If so, wouldn’t the reasoning that a child won’t always make responsible decisions affect ANY child on their campus? What about teen pregnancy, texting and driving, or simply making wrong choices? Does this child not deserve the same opportunities that all of the other children who have attended this school deserve? If he was your child, would you do something to step up to the plate and make a difference?

This legal case is a great reminder about the ignorance that many people have regarding HIV, and the stigma that still exists 26 years later. We have made great strides towards HIV awareness, but when educators and school board members still don’t understand HIV 101 basics it is a great reminder of all of the work that still needs to happen in the fight against HIV.

If you are moved to advocate for this child, www.change.org as created a petition requesting that the Milton Hershey School end discrimination toward this young man. It’s free to sign up, and only takes a few minutes to make a difference.