No, this is not a retro headline from 30 plus years ago but rather one from mere days ago when it was made public a 13 year old was denied placement at the private Milton Hershey boarding school openly based on the fact he is HIV positive. Added to the blatantly discriminatory decision doled out by the school, was their reasoning, both on and off camera, stating they could not accommodate students with chronic communicable diseases. Such statements displaying a level of ignorance many thought we had abolished in the last 3 decades; namely that HIV/AIDS is spread through blood to blood contact, blood transfusions or sexual contact involving body fluids, not daily casual contact, sharing a water bottle exc. Further a school spokesperson went on to almost assail a bright 13 year old boy’s character when they said they would not admit him for fear he would have unprotected sex, thus spreading his deadly disease. While the boy and his family have filed a lawsuit and legal analysts say the school has little chance of winning in this case, damage has already been done in the form of a young man who describes his life after the incident as one of anger, confusion and tears. Leaving educated Americans shocked episodes like this still happen in the 21st century, for all the strides made in informing people, all the leaps in science giving HIV and AIDS infected people long, manageable lives, almost to the point of public complacency, there still exists those in power so ill informed, those who feel justified in making such a decision and in the United States of America of all places.
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This is an ironic direct juxtaposition to World Aids Day celebrations, events and functions highlighting both the progress in the war against a disease that was once so deadly in North America, that has decimated parts of the African continent, now being beaten back with the help of monies and celebrities willing to keep the cause at the forefront of Westernized governments’ minds, along with the progress still needing to be made to rid the world of this modern plague. Punctuated all the more by a bold, heartening speech delivered by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton saying just how close we are to the possibility of an AIDS free generation, followed with a duel appearance by Bono and Alicia Keys on Good Morning America explaining, in part, how anti-retroviral drug therapies, the medications used to give HIV infected persons longer, more productive lives, often capable of inhibiting the onset of full blown AIDS have now advanced to a point they can be used as prevention, many times meaning HIV sufferers do not spread the disease to either their sexual partners or their unborn child, if we can only make sure everyone who needs it can get it. Both GMA guests describing this year as a turning point that cannot be derailed by recessions, austerity measures emphatically insisting these things cannot cost lives. A coming victory for people living and dying half a world away where basics we take for granted are hard to obtain, where electricity, clean water, qualified doctors and medication are luxuries. Further irony is exposed listening to these two music starts turned activists detail how America largely made all of the positives surrounding AIDS possible, giving funds, producing research toward both treatments and someday a cure, distributing medication to millions who would either be dead or potentially infecting others.
So if everything they said is true, the Milton Hershey School, a private school free for students of low income families, doesn’t have a leg to stand on, as the unprotected sex threat becomes null and void, seeing as his medication probably keeps his viral load so low it wouldn’t transmit to another person, even if he had unprotected sex. Not that they had one to stand on to begin with because it’s not that he didn’t meet admission criteria, that there was a problem academically, similar to colleges that he had not taken the necessary classes, or there was some suspicion of cheating, his grades didn’t stack up; neither was there any indication there were issues behaviorally, regarding his conduct or he didn’t get in simply due to many qualifying students and not enough space. However based on the undeniable, video recorded fact a school spokesperson is on camera, speaking to news media saying they would not admit him because of his health status, something clearly against the law, the statues enacted to protect those afflicted with a condition inspiring so much fear. It’s less that comments about possible unprotected sex were made, considering adolescents are experimenting with sex younger and younger; it’s more they were made about this particular young man, and the tone in which they were made. The school allowed a woman to make said comments independent of the fact the young man she is talking about has been HIV positive all his life, meaning he did not contract the virus from unprotect sex, sexual irresponsibility, likely instead from an infected mother who transmitted it in utero. At the same time there is no evidence he has ever been sexually active, forget promiscuous, or he will become so in the near future, no evidence he has been sexually involved without informing a potential partner or would ever do such a thing. If anything the school along with the public should fear what this kind of discrimination might do to his character, how it might cause him to react.
Parents seem to be conflicted torn between how they would feel if it was their child in his position and how they would feel if they knew their child was in a similar school and somehow was infected. Some drawing distinctions between boarding schools and regular schools; others differentiating between public and private schools, under the impression said schools are allowed to have their own rules determining admission guidelines. Legally the latter is untrue one lawyer saying if a school is open to the public; it’s open to the public. And while parents’ instincts to protect their children is understandable, by that fear based logic, he should not play sports, which he does at his current school without any discriminatory problems, without any red flag close call incidents where students came in contact with blood via a cut or injury incurred while playing, a much more plausible scenario than him suddenly becoming some sort of serial sexual predator purposely infecting anyone he can. Because also missing from information regarding this young man is any sign he is too immature to understand the complexities of his disease as well as the danger it or any risky behavior oh his part, poses to others. In fact it is the exact opposite; he appears mature, intelligent to reporters interviewing him as he speaks out about his treatment by an educational institution no less. Clearly he is focused both on academics and his future as he wants to attend the Milton Hershey school to begin with, a desire he still holds after what has happened as a result of an ailment he had no control over how he contracted.
Bringing up another important point, according to prevailing parents’ protect first logic, this talented young man should not be allowed to attend college when the time comes, if it means staying in a dorm, perhaps sharing an apartment with other people, an utterly ludicrous suggestion considering people with HIV/AIDS live in apartment buildings, have roommates, work in the same offices, use the same gyms as the rest of us and we are none the wiser unless they communicate their health status to us. The rates of infection aren’t increasing or decreasing because we know where HIV/AIDS infected people are or aren’t; they fluctuate based on behavior, based on people being educated about the spread of any disease including this one. Looking at what the school would realistically have to do to safely admit the boy while protecting fellow students, much of it is wrapped up in procedures already in place to prevent the spread of other communicable diseases like hepatitis. Requiring medical staff to wear gloves, proper handling of bio hazardous material, the school nurse, infirmary staff obviously being informed of his condition and things they thus need to be on the lookout for should he become ill, should certain symptoms develop. However all those points fall on the medical staff of the school not the young man or other students. There might be minor logistical issues centering around how his medication is dispensed if he is not allowed to keep it in his room or the school feels he must be supervised when taking it, him having to inform his roommate(s) about his condition and not to touch him if he is bleeding, situations he has probably already experienced being on a sports team, sleeping over at a friend’s house, nothing this young individual cannot handle. Unfortunately his classmates are poised to be more accepting of him than school staff.
Sadly we’ve long known schools have lost the foundation of everything from common sense to tolerance, have been failing students in multiple aspects of education, yet current events, the headline, speak to a failure of a different kind, a failure of those in power, those charged with making decisions to be well educated, level headed, basing their conclusions on fact and sound judgment rather than caving in to hysteria, mob mentality originated fear. We also see the consequences of ignorance run amuck mirrored in our political debates; the idea that you don’t have to be knowledgeable to gain even the highest office in the land. Here is a giant opportunity for the school, protection first parents and the public to reacquaint themselves with the facts of a disease that’s been off the radar for so many years, a time to remind themselves of the ways you can get it and the ways you can’t, familiarize themselves with the actual danger posed by this infection if not properly handled, and ways to properly handle it while treating the people who have it with dignity and respect. Now is exactly the time to highlight precautions that must be taken while emphasizing the ones that don’t need to be taken; here’s a hint the answer isn’t locking him up in a bubble, creating headlines like the above, lawsuits that tarnish a young person’s life and your reputation. Because even if he wins, is admitted to the school, he still loses.
Here is a perfect vehicle to begin a dialog as educators and parents about the importance of having protected sex, wearing a condom every time you’re with someone, the often hidden or forgotten dangers of commonly engaged in teen sexual behaviors, such as oral sex, reinforcing the idea that if you haven’t known the person long enough to know if they have something, if they’ve been with other people, then maybe it’s too soon to be having sex. Also it’s a perfect opportunity to demonstrate the need for compassion, for not jumping to conclusions, as it’s possible this young man contracted the disease from a tainted blood transfusion, as opposed to an HIV infected mother, reminding people that even with screening errors can be made. Maybe his mother was infected from a husband who cheated, who didn’t know he was infected until it was too late and she was pregnant with him. Details of his story he may not even know; details that are his to share with whom he wishes when he is ready, not as fodder for a public who thinks it needs to know everything. At the same time we need to be empowering teens with knowledge and possible action plans; if you are sexually active, get tested routinely. If you find out you are HIV positive get medicated especially if you are pregnant or there is a chance you could be. This is what the school should be doing, what parents should be demanding rather than championing isolationist behavior taking us back decades in so many more ways than social tolerance. However some things never change.