Did the Hershey School reject students for depression? Two suits say yes

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Abbie Bartels, 14, hung herself in her home in Central Pennsylvania in June 2013 after she was told she could not return to the 2,000-student boarding school for her eighth-grade graduation.

Lawyers for two former students, including a 14-year-old girl who committed suicide, sued the $12.3 billion Milton Hershey School on Thursday in federal court here, alleging that they were expelled for depression and having suicidal thoughts.

The suits say the school for impoverished children violated a 2012 agreement with the Justice Department to treat disabled students better and seeks unspecified monetary damages and reforms.

Abbie Bartels, 14, hanged herself in her home in central Pennsylvania in June 2013 after she was told she could not return to the 2,000-student boarding school for her eighth-grade graduation. She had enrolled there as a 5-year-old but exhibited depression only toward the end of eighth grade, the suit said.

"Abbie was terminated by [the Hershey School] and released back to a poor, unstable, and at-risk environment, contrary to any reasonable treatment," said the suit filed by her parents, Julie Ellen Wartluft and Frederick Bartels.

Spokeswoman Lisa Scullin said the Hershey School, partly funded by Hershey Co. chocolate profits, "is firmly committed to the safety and fair treatment of our students" who qualify under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The law provides that private schools and other public places cannot simply bar those with physical or mental-health disabilities but must make accommodations for them.

Scullin said that "some children have very severe emotional or mental-health issues that go beyond our school's ability to help them. These students need to be cared for in a professional health-care environment, not in a boarding school setting."

The second suit, filed by Adam Dobson, said that Dobson had worked in the school's admissions department but was eventually expelled in the summer of 2013 after he underwent treatment for depression and told school officials he was considering suicide, his suit said.

His houseparents, the suit said, forced him to watch "a religious-based video that was intended to 'cure' him of being gay." Hershey School students live in more than 150 homes, staffed by houseparents who are school employees, on the vast, 10,000-acre Hershey property. Dobson is now 21 and living in New York.

Lawyers from the Dilworth Paxson LLP firm in Center City are representing the plaintiffs in both cases.

Scullin said the notion that houseparents forced Dobson to watch the video was "an outrageous allegation and a practice the administration would never allow or condone."

The federal suits add to the mounting crisis at the super-rich Pennsylvania institution.

Investigators for the Justice Department have been looking into whether the school fails to enroll physically disabled children and expels students with mental-health problems, as Thursday's suits in Philadelphia claim.

The federal agency concluded in 2012 that the Hershey School violated federal disabilities laws by rejecting a 13-year-old Delaware County boy for admission because he had contracted HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

The Hershey School settled the case by paying the boy $750,000 and agreeing to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Justice Department declined to comment Thursday.

Separately, the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office is investigating the Hershey Trust - the entity created by Milton and Catherine Hershey more than 100 years ago to finance the Hershey School - over its compliance with a 2013 settlement agreement meant to curb soaring director compensation on the trust's complex of boards, and other financial irregularities.

The same nine trust directors have oversight of both the trust's finances and the Hershey School.

Trust directors collectively earned $2 million in compensation by holding seats on for-profit companies owned or controlled by the trust, according to the Hershey School's latest IRS tax return, for the tax year ending July 31, 2015.

bfernandez@phillynews.com

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