PHILADELPHIA (CN) - A mother claims the Milton Hershey boarding School refused to accept her 13-year-old honor-roll student and "avid athlete" because he is HIV-positive. She says the rejection left her son "emotionally devastated."
Filed on the eve of World AIDS Day, the federal complaint claims a representative of the Milton Hershey School told the eighth-grader's hospital caseworker that the school "did not take kids like that," referring to his HIV status.
The refusal lacks legitimate medical basis, as HIV is not transmitted through "day-to-day contact in schools or social settings" and the Centers for Disease Control "has no documented cases of transmission through participation in sports," the mother says.
She sued under the pseudonyms Mother Smith and Abraham Smith.
The famous chocolatier founded the Milton Hershey School in 1909 as the Hershey Industrial School, for orphaned boys.
Mother Smith says: "Despite receipt of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention information that HIV is not transmitted through casual contact, and that there was no medical reason to exclude Abraham from the school on the basis of his HIV status, defendant intentionally and recklessly continued to refuse to consider Abraham for enrollment."
Smith says the school's "willfully ignorant and illegal treatment" of her son caused him embarrassment and "profound sadness."
The AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, representing the Smiths, said in a statement that it is "struck by how similar our client is to Ryan White."
White, who died at 18 after contracting HIV through a blood transfusion, became an international symbol of AIDS-related issues, particularly discrimination, as he waged a legal battle over his Indiana middle school's attempt to bar him.
The Milton Hershey School disagreed with the comparison.
"This case is actually nothing like the Ryan White case," the school told Courthouse News in a statement.
The Milton Hershey School "is not a day school, where students go home to their family at the end of the day," according to the unsigned statement.
"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 school's statement added: "Milton Hershey School had planned to file a request in federal court asking the court to review our decision to deny enrollment. Recognizing the complex legal issues, the school was preparing to ask the court to weigh in on this matter. Unfortunately, attorneys for the young man took the adversarial action of filing a lawsuit against the school."
The Smiths seek compensatory and punitive damages for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
They are represented by Ronda Goldfein with the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania.
Dec. 1 is World AIDS Day.
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