Fourteen-year-old Abraham Smith, an honor roll student and competitive athlete, is determined to get into Stanford University. Accordingly, Smith (not his real name) sought to attend a quality secondary school that would help him gain admission to the renowned private university, where he plans to study engineering.
Instead, he spent eighth grade absorbed in a widely publicized antidiscrimination lawsuit against the Milton Hershey School, which rejected him last year because he has HIV. But that battle has finally come to a close. In mid September, Smith and his mother reached a settlement with the Pennsylvania school for $700,000.
The school was also ordered to pay $15,000 in civil penalties, draft nondiscrimination and equal opportunity policies, and implement training on HIV and other disabilities for staff and students by next April.
“There should no longer be any lingering doubt about whether people with HIV present a risk in the casual setting,” says Ronda Goldfein, executive director of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, the public-interest law firm that represented the family.
Milton Hershey School officials could not be reached for comment.
Founded in 1909 by chocolate magnate Milton Hershey and his wife, Catherine, the tuition-free private school serves more than 1,800 students, from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, with social and financial needs like Smith, who comes from a low-income family. Students live in homes with 10 to 12 other pupils in their age group and a pair of married houseparents.
Smith applied in April 2011, attracted by the school’s wide range of potential mentors, scholarship opportunities, and an educational environment that is still close to home, Goldfein says.
Administrators, however, said Smith could not attend because the school didn’t have the resources to meet his needs. In November 2011, Smith and his mother filed suit, claiming the school had violated the Americans With Disabilities Act. The school followed up with a statement claiming that Smith would pose “a direct threat” to the other students, a position it publicly held for nearly a year.
But last summer, after the U.S. Department of Justice advised the school to change its position, Milton Hershey president Anthony Colistra publicly apologized to Smith, offered him admission, and announced a new equal opportunity policy and plans for mandatory HIV-related training for staff and students.
Smith has decided not to attend the school and will use the money from the settlement to fund his education elsewhere. Usually careful about whom he shares his status with, he is relieved the suit is over, Goldfein says.
“He’s had to…accept this idea, because he has a virus, people will treat him differently and badly,” she says. “He’s had to struggle with the idea of, How is the next person I open up to going to react?”
Now with the legal ordeal behind him, Smith can focus on his ambition: an engineering degree from Stanford, with his name on it.