Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Ignorance and the Milton Hershey School

More on "Abraham Smith" vs The Milton Hershey School. My print column is up.

At the end of it, I mention the outbreak of HIV a few years back at University of North Carolina, and that if it can happen there, it can happen anywhere. From UNC TV:
For years, doctors thought college students were at low risk for contracting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. But researchers at UNC Chapel Hill's medical school recently found an outbreak of the virus on 37 campuses in our state...

Dr. Lisa Hightow/UNC-CH Medical School: The investigation started because we noticed there were two cases of acute HIV infection in college students in North Carolina, specifically in the Triangle area. Both of those cases were in black males.

That led Dr. Lisa Hightow to review the state's records for young men diagnosed with HIV between January 2000 and December 2003, under the direction of Dr. Peter Leone.

Dr. Peter Leone/UNC-CH Medical School & Medical Director, HIV/STD Prevention & Care Branch: What we found was very few cases in 2000, but a gradual increase from 2000 through 2003, so that by 2003 we had 30 new cases of HIV in college students that had been diagnosed that year.

Drs. Leone and Hightow say over those four years, a total of 84 men at 37 colleges statewide contracted HIV. And a sexual partner network linked them to outbreaks in five other states.

Dr. Hightow: And when you look at the number of colleges that are involved, the number of students, we see a trend. And our goal as public health practitioners is to prevent the numbers from getting into the range of the hundreds and the thousands...
Meanwhile, the news coverage of MHS story has been transparently one-sided, accusatory and soft-headed. For instance, from ABC News there was this:
A 13-year-old boy who applied to a Hershey, Pa., boarding school told ABC News that it never crossed his mind he would be denied entry because he was HIV-positive.

"I thought I would get into the school, because of the type of student and person I am," he told ABC News in a written interview through his lawyer.

As a result of the school's decision, he added, "my life has turned into fear, anger, confusion and tears."

The school said today that its residential setting and the risk of sexual activity made the teen too much of a "threat."
"In a written interview through his lawyer"? The lawyer is not only suing to get the young man into the school but for the "intentional infliction" of "mental anguish," "grief," "worry," "severe emotional distress," embarrassment, humiliation, etc., so it's good that in the "interview" the poor kid mentioned the "fear, anger, confusion and tears" he's been experiencing.

The story goes on to quote that noted AIDS epidemiologist Arthur Caplan at Penn's Center for Bioethics.
"This notion that you can't put him in residential housing at a school because he is a vector of death is a throwback to 1987, when people were worried you couldn't mainstream children in any school," he said. "It sets back what we know to be true about the disease."

Caplan suggested the school use this as a teaching opportunity to educate students about HIV.
"The vector of death," has a nice ring to it but that is his loaded phrase not the school's. As for this being a throwback to 1987, it may have escaped Mr. Caplan's notice but people are still getting and transmitting the HIV virus. Residential educational settings hardly immune from that sad fact (as noted above).

By the way, I say "Mr." Caplan because he is not a medical doctor, let alone an epidemiologist. He has a Ph.D in the Philosophy of Science, which makes him no more of an expert on the AIDS epidemic than I am. Why ABC would cite him as some authoritative source on the subject is beyond me.

As it happens though, I AM on the board of a residential educational facility for young men between the ages of 15 and 18. The school serves boys that have been adjudicated delinquent by a court. And we will take HIV positive young men, no questions asked. Why? Three reasons:

1. Though we are a private school, we take public money from a variety of jurisdictions. Doing so requires us to adhere more strictly to anti-discrimination laws than private schools (like MHS) that don't take public money.

2. Refusing an HIV positive kid, would not only invite the very sort of lawsuit filed against MHS but it would prevent our customers, public agencies themselves, from using our school as the very valuable resource it is for educating court-adjudicated youth.

3. Last and most importantly, we believe that the chances of an HIV positive student on our campus infecting anyone else, student or staff, are truly remote.

What makes our school different than MHS is that it is a single-sex institution with one-quarter the population. Our students stay, on average, 9 months or less. Unlike at MHS, opportunities for consensual sex between the boys under our care, while existent, are few and far between.

Furthermore, all staff are well trained to take universal precautions when it comes to dealing with potential blood-born pathogens from hepatitis to HIV. I have no doubt that MHS staff are equally well trained. What sets it apart from a school like ours is the length of stays of the students (months vs. years) and the overall opportunity for sexual activity between students. The absence of girls on our campus plus keeping our students busy 16 hours a day with learning, sports and other activities, helps.

When MHS spokesman Connie McNamara says the administration "struggled" with this decision, I believe her. What that means is, it could have gone the other way. That it didn't doesn't mean that they have been capricious, ignorant or bigoted in their thinking. Quite the contrary.

Lastly, I think the AIDS Law Project and this boy's mother are doing this kid an enormous disservice. They are (intentionally or not) instilling and nurturing in him a sense of aggrievement and entitlement, that helps very few teenagers in the long run. He has been made to think that he has been turned away by MHS because the school is run by stupid, ignorant haters, who dislike him personally.

This kid has been dealt a bad hand by life. Neither his lawyer, nor his mother, aren't making it any better by putting him at the center of this very public controversy.


Blogger Bob Bohne said...

Gil - Good column with legit food for thought.

December 7, 2011 at 9:10 AM 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree, Bob...

December 7, 2011 at 8:14 PM 
Anonymous Mark said...

Gil - Good column with legit food for thought.

January 3, 2013 at 4:51 PM 

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