A former student at the $12.5 billion Milton Hershey School for impoverished children says in a federal lawsuit that school staff spied on her on Facebook and then framed her for arson.
The 2,000-student boarding school pinned blame on 10th grader Jaiden Buchan for a fire that caused $700,000 in damage to a school-owned home to divert attention from staff and the son of house parents who had a criminal record, according to the suit filed in Harrisburg federal court in late December.
The Dauphin County District Attorney's Office prosecuted Buchan, now 20, in 2013, but a juvenile family court judge dismissed the case, the suit says.
The Hershey School "manufactured" a case against Buchan to "find any scapegoat at all, lest the 'arson' be unsolved" and look badly on school staff, according to the suit, which seeks more than $300,000.
The school's attorney, Jarad W. Handelman, with the Elliott Greenleaf firm in Harrisburg, said that the Hershey School "will vigorously defend against these baseless claims, and will pursue appropriate legal remedies" to protect the school and advance the interests of its students.
Handelman, a former general counsel for Gov. Tom Corbett, said the Buchan allegations and other recent suits involving Hershey students were part of a "personal crusade" by school critic Ric Fouad, an alum and New York-based lawyer who has been seeking reforms at the school for many years.
Matthew B. Weisberg, a Morton, Delaware County, lawyer who represents Buchan, said Thursday of Fouad: "I don't know who he is."
The Buchan suit is the latest to rock the super-rich central Pennsylvania educational institution, a charity that controls the Hershey chocolate and tourism empires and possesses an endowment larger than the University of Pennsylvania's.
Its mission, based on Milton and Catherine Hershey’s 1909 deed, is to lift poor children and orphans, mostly from Pennsylvania, out of poverty. But the school is also one of the most politically powerful institutions in Pennsylvania, dispensing millions through board seats and legal and construction contracts.
Three Hershey School board members quit Dec. 31 and two others have said they will depart this December as part of an agreement that settled the latest investigation by the state Attorney General's Office over excessive board compensation, board tenure, and infighting.
Board members have spent about $4 million investigating themselves over the last 18 months and have yet to appoint replacements, shrinking its ranks to six members
Josh Shapiro, Pennsylvania’s new attorney general, was sworn in to office Tuesday. His office has broad oversight powers over Hershey. Critics of the school, however, say that Shapiro's predecessors have failed to rein in the charity and compel it to spend more of its vast wealth on poor children.
In July, the school reached confidential settlements with 11 former students who lived in a dormitory with a gun-toting Hershey School staffer after he hid a digital camera in their shower.
Two former Hershey students, Abbie Bartels and Adam Dobson, filed federal suits last summer, saying they were discriminated against when they were banned from campus or expelled after suicide attempts.
Two more students who attempted suicide, including one from Cheltenham, filed discrimination complaints with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission in late 2016. All four cases are pending.
A 2016 Dauphin County Common Pleas suit says that a Hershey student, identified as D.P., tore her rotator cuff and shoulder tendon when she was forced to repeatedly carry a log over her head as she ran up a grassy hill for punishment. She was expelled when she couldn't complete the drill, the suit says.
"It seems to be there is a lack of oversight at the school," said Weisberg, the Morton lawyer, who also represents D.P.
The Buchan suit says that the girl’s mother, Kim, was a Hershey hairdresser who was part of a circle of friends that included school president Peter Gurt.
Buchan excelled as a student and an athlete, making Hershey's varsity field hockey team as a freshman. But she was also homesick. And when she and her mother tangled with the school over its policies, the staff turned against the girl, the suit says.
The house mother in Buchan’s boarding home, a school employee, saw a picture of Buchan on her mother's Facebook page and discovered a previously undisclosed tattoo on her hip in 2012, according to the suit.
According to the lawsuit, the school punished Buchan for violating a "no tattoo" edict even though the suit claims there was no school policy against tattoos.
Later that summer, a fire broke out in Buchan's boarding house on campus. The house parents and their adult son were at the home at the time, along with other girls.
The suit says that school employees suspected Buchan, and the Derry Township police eventually charged her with five felonies. At the nonjury juvenile trial, the judge "made a finding that Jaiden did not commit the acts for which she had been framed,” the suit says, calling the case “farcical.”
The school threatened Buchan's mother with a $700,000 restitution claim after the fire, the suit says.
The Dauphin County District Attorney's Office had no comment on the federal suit. The Derry Township police did not return a phone call.