By Eric Johnson
(Reuters) - The family of an HIV-positive boy sued a boarding school in Hershey, Pennsylvania after it denied admission to the 13-year-old citing safety concerns, a school official said on Thursday.
The Milton Hershey School, a cost-free, private school for roughly 1,850 socially disadvantaged pre-kindergarten through high school students founded by the Hershey chocolate company, defended the controversial decision.
"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," said Connie McNamara, a spokesman for the Milton Hershey School, located roughly 100 miles northwest of Philadelphia.
"The reason is simple. We are serving children, and no child can be assumed to always make responsible decisions that protect the well being of others," McNamara said.
HIV, or the human immunodeficiency virus, is medical condition that undermines the body's immune system and can make those infected susceptible to lethal cancers and infections. HIV is a precursor to AIDS, or the Acquired immune deficiency syndrome, a pandemic which has killed roughly 25 million people since its discovery in the early 1980s.
HIV is most commonly transmitted through sex or sharing needles with an infected person, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. HIV is not transmitted by day-to-day casual contact, such as through shaking hands or a casual kiss. The CDC said it is not possible to become infected from a toilet seat, a drinking fountain, a door knob, dishes, drinking glasses, food, or pets.
The school said it planned to ask a federal judge to weigh-in on their decision, but attorneys for the boy and his mother "took the adversarial action of filing a lawsuit," McNamara said.
The child's attorneys at the non-profit AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania sought to compare the school's actions to the Ryan White case, in which an HIV-positive Indiana boy was expelled from middle school in the 1980s because of the infection. That case led to the Ryan White Care Act of 1990.
Federal and state laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of a real or perceived disability, including having HIV, according to the National Association of State Boards of Education.
White, who became infected after a hemophilia treatment and died of AIDS in 1990, became a national spokesman for AIDS research and public education and drew attention to the then little-known infection.
"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 AIDS Law Project Executive Director Ronda B. Goldfein, who is representing the boy and his mother in the lawsuit.
The boy "is an honor roll student and an avid athlete" who controls his HIV through a regimen of medication that does not impact his school schedule, according to the lawsuit filed with the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia.
The school, which was founded by industrialist Milton S. Hershey in 1909 to care for orphans, said their case is different because it is a boarding school "where children live in homes with 10 to 12 other students" on its campus "24 hours a day, 7 days a week," McNamara said.
Thursday was World AIDS Day and President Barack Obama announced new funding to battle AIDS and challenged other nations to boost their commitments to fund treatment.
(Reporting by Eric Johnson; Editing by Greg McCune)