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Wonky Policies and the Chocolate Factory: The Milton Hershey School Is Wrong on HIV

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Right from the start the Milton Hershey School had questionable policies. Twice it changed those policies: once to remove their whites-only requirement (1970), and once to allow the enrollment of female students (1976). Now they actively discriminate against students who are HIV-positive. The school is run by a trust that actually owns controlling interests in the Hershey Company, which produces all that chocolate.

The Milton Hershey School houses 1,800 students from preschool through high school, although new students are admitted only up to age 15. The majority of students are in grade school, with 48 percent in high school. If the high school population is evenly distributed across the various grades, then approximately 76 percent of the school's students are below the age of consent in Pennsylvania.

Recently, the school refused admission to a student who appeared qualified in all ways. They chose to refuse him solely because he is HIV-positive. They said he poses a threat to all other students, saying, "We take full accountability for our students." And they point out, "Our students are children." They have to protect these children from dangerous people -- like other children who are HIV-positive.

They claimed the HIV-positive boy posed "a direct threat to the health and safety of others that cannot be avoided by reasonable modifications of the School's policies and procedures." They reject the idea of casual transmission but fear that "some of our students will engage in sexual activity with one another. Given our residential setting, when they do, they will be doing so on our watch." They said, "If we knowingly admitted a student with HIV, and that student ultimately had sexual relations with another student that led to the transmissions of HIV, we believe we would have failed in meeting our obligation."

However, this "failure" is limited to this one student. In their health policy section they write, "At times, sensitive issues arise which a student may feel unable to discuss with his/her family. These might include issues of sexuality, birth control, pregnancy, and/or sexually-transmitted diseases. In such situations, and in order to provide timely information and treatment, the student's request for confidentiality will be respected."

The school would "fail" in the unlikely situation of a 14-year-old infecting another student with HIV, yet it would not fail when children under their care become pregnant or spread sexually transmitted infections to one another. In the case of the 14-year-old, they refused his admission; in the case of pregnant students or students with STIs, the Milton Hershey School actively cooperates to hide the information from parents or guardians. Because most Hershey students are under the age of consent, this confidentiality policy, whatever you may think of it, actually violates state law in most cases.

Early in their statement they justify discrimination against an HIV-positive child because "our students are children" but elsewhere discuss how their "children" are spreading STIs and getting pregnant and why the school will hide this information from guardians and parents. They respect the rights of the students when convenient, and then invoke the safety of the "children" when convenient. The policy seems a tad inconsistent, flexible to the point of justifying any policy they want, no matter how irrational.

They say they try to educate the children, but that "some ... will engage in sexual activity with one another" and that "they will be doing so on our watch." So, on their watch, they know children are having sex. They know these children apparently are spreading STIs and becoming pregnant. Doesn't this indicate, by their own logic, that they are failing their children and that they simply don't have reasonable policies in place to prevent pregnancy and STIs? Why is HIV status their one big concern?

I understand why liberals and libertarians are shocked by a policy singling out a boy with HIV and labeling him a "threat." It's enough to make me stop eating Hershey's chocolates. But shouldn't conservatives be upset and boycott Hershey, as well? After all, the owners of Hershey run a school where they admit that children under their care are sexually active, and they will deal with the pregnancies, birth control, and STIs entirely in secret if the student requests it. Has Hershey actually managed to craft a policy guaranteed to offend everyone?

On the other hand, they claim that their students "live as families in homes with 10 to 12 other students, where our houseparents care for them 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, throughout the calendar year." They have classroom sizes of 15 students per teacher and have surveillance systems throughout the campus. It makes you wonder why they assume that this one boy would be spreading HIV with willing partners with that much adult supervision. On the other hand, the school admits to problems with STIs and teen pregnancy, calling into question how observant all this adult supervision may be.

If they have decent adult supervision, then why can't they admit this one boy? If they don't have decent adult supervision, then they have bigger concerns than this boy.

The school may do some good. It may do a lot of good. However, the way they defend their policy in regard to this child raises awkward questions detrimental to the school itself.

Individuals wishing to complain about the policy may email the school at mhs-communications@mhs-pa.org.