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My Feelings on the Milton Hershey HIV Controversy

Originally posted on Facebook. 

First of all I want to state that I am by no means a representative of the School. I have no idea what took place during the decision making process and can only make speculations. However, as a 2007 graduate of the Milton Hershey School (MHS) I completely understand why the School had to make the tough decision to deny admission to this young man. As Connie McNamara said during her interview with Andreson Cooper: the School has to keep a balance between the needs of an individual child and the wellbeing of the other 2000 students in their care. I stand by the decision of the School and I will explain why.

My immediate gut reaction to this was I would not want to be a part of the MHS Admissions Staff. What a terribly difficult decision to make. But then again, isn’t it a difficult task anyway? Determining which children will get the privilege of attending this incredible school and which students they will have to deny is not something I would want to do. Every student that attends MHS has their own story; each more heartwrenching than the next. What an emotional decision for the staff at MHS to have to make. 

But as I continued to read the articles and watched this situation run rampant throughout national news my feelings developed to anger. How can these outsiders be so ignorant to the functions of the School? How can they not understand the risks involved at MHS? But then it dawned on me: a quote from my collegiate sorority expereince can explain a little bit about MHS too. “From the outside looking in, you can never understand it. From the inside looking out, you can never explain it.” 

Anderson Cooper, who pretty much harassed Connie McNamara on public television, has absolutely no idea what it is like to be a student at MHS. He and the other reporters who are passing judgement on MHS do not understand the culture of the School. Well let me enlighten you:

  • Although there are numerous rules prohibiting students from having any type of sexual relations (or even dating for some students) it happens any way. How many of us graduates can recall young girls leaving the School midway through the year because they were pregnant? And although there is a statement floating around that MHS does not hand out contraception but does not take it away, how many people had houseparents who would take them if they were found? The only reason I was on birth control at MHS was because I had acne and other related issues that allowed me get it. 
  • As much as I would like to believe this young man will do the right thing with his condition and be upfront and honest with all potential partners, I cannot. Many people have thrown out the argument of why would a 13 year old be having sex? Have you seen the teen pregnancy numbers lately? And secondly, it is not like this child would be enrolled at MHS for a year and that is it. He would be in attendance from the 7th or 8th grade all the way through high school. He may not have hit puberity yet, but it is certain to happen during his time at the School. That means that for 5-6 years MHS will have this young many on their campus; and during that time any number of things could happen.
  • There is information circulating that this boy is in medication for his HIV and that it is 90% effective in preventing the transmission of his disease. While I am glad to hear that he is being treated, the 10% ineffectiveness of this medication is far too high of a risk for MHS to take. There are already so many uncertainty factors floating around MHS that adding another one of this magnitude creates an extremely hazardous situation for students, houseparents, staff, faculty, and anyone else who comes to campus including Alumni, sponsors, guardians, parents, and guests. Condoms and other forms of birth control have been said to be 90-99% effective in preventing pregnancy. But how many people have you heard of that have had issues? If they cannot guarantee non-transmission, there is no way they can allow this child to become a student.
  • Some people have compared this situation to other students that have been admitted with other medical issues like diabetes, cancer, and others. Well I can tell you from experience that living with someone with diabetes is managable, but still scary if they do not know how to handle the disease. My housemate had to have needle deposits set up in her room and other areas of the house. And on occasion while I was cleaning I would find needles near these areas instead of in the deposits. My houseparents had children and a dog. What if they came across one of these needles? What if one of my housemates accidentially stepped on one? And there were many times that I was out with this student when their sugar got low and we had to FIND something for her to eat. Like I said it was managable, but there were still a lot of risks involved just by being their housemate.
  • However, even if I pricked myself with a used needle there was no way to transmit diabetes to me. If this young man cuts himself while he is shaving and an unsuspecting housemate goes to help him the consequences could be devastating. And it is not like they can announce that this boy has HIV to everyone in order to take precautions. That would be a violation of his privacy under HIPPA. So one Federal Law says you can’t discriminate against people who have HIV/AIDS but another Federal Law says you cannot provide anyone with that information unless you are that person in order to increase awareness and improve safety and security measures. So how do you propose MHS goes about educating it’s faculty and staff? Do they have to handle EACH AND EVERY child as if they have HIV? Or would staff who have direct contact be allowed to be informed? Regardless, this does not protect the other students who would not be aware. 
  • And what if this boy decides to confide in his roommate that he has HIV? Anyone who graduated from MHS knows that even the smallest news spreads like wildfire on campus. Nothing is a secret and there is no such thing as privacy when it comes to discussing your personal life with other students. And any graduate can tell you that when the news is not good news the ridicule that comes along with it can be monsterous. I would be terrified how a middle school age boy would be treated by peers if they were to learn of his circumstance. While MHS has produced many fine young men and women, there are plenty who struggle while at MHS and have severe behavioral issues. I hate to say it, but there are some students that would pick on this poor boy. He would have a hard time socially. I’m sure he would have plenty of friends who support him, but it would be a difficult adjustment.
  • What about activities? Would this young man be allowed to participate in sports and physical activities? The risks would then spread not only to the students of MHS but to the students at the teams MHS plays against. One cut or scrap on the playing field would be detrimental. But it’s not just sports. What if this boy joins stage crew and accidentially cuts himself while building a set piece? So MHS could decide to not allow this student to participate in these types of extracirricular activities. But those activities were half of what kept me going at MHS. They afforded me opportunities I would have never had if I had not be at MHS. So this boy would be denied the full MHS experience because of his condition. But it is not just extracirricular activities either. What about physical education courses? 

I don’t expect everyone to agree with me. In fact, I understand why many people sympathize with this young man. However, I do not like it when people say that MHS has an obligation to help this boy. 

In keeping with Milton and Catherine Hershey’s Deed of Trust, Milton Hershey School nurtures and educates children in social and financial need to lead fulfilling and productive lives. -http://www.mhs-pa.org/about/mhs-mission-vision

I do not believe that MHS would be able to help this child lead a fulfilling and productive life. In order to keep the majority safe and secure the School would have to deny this boy some of the many aspects of MHS that make it such a great place. And the endless trainings, seminars, and medical precautions that would need to be put into place in order to accomodate this boy would be at the costs of providing other things to these students. While it may seem that MHS is just “rolling in dough,” they have a budget. They are a nonprofit organization just like the rest and are suseptable to major changes in the way things are done on a regular basis.

But like I said above, MHS does NOT have an obligation to help any one individual. Attending MHS and receiving all the benefits that come with it is NOT a right, it is a privilege. And if this boy and his mother have the audacity to sue the School after this matter, it shows that they clearly believe that it is a right. Students who have that mentality are the ones who end up leaving before graduation anyway. I could understand continuing to petition for admission, but this lawsuit is not only for admission but for emotional/mental damages as well. 

I could keep going forever, but there are so many different arguments about this that I can’t continue to explain them all. I said things there that upper level officials cannot say in press releases. I’ve explained things that only a current student or Alumni can truly explain. Like I said, I am by no means a spokesperson for the School, but I believe in their decision and stand by them completely. I want people to understand my thought process and why I believe MHS needed to make this difficult decision. 

I encourage questions and counterpoints. I always appreciated educated opinions. But be warned if you come at me with ignorance I will either ignore you or blow you up. I am extremely passionate about the nonprofit sector, but I am even more passionate about this school. 

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