As the Milton S. Hershey School for impoverished children spent millions of dollars defending itself against federal lawsuits claiming mistreatment of depressed and suicidal students, Chief Federal Judge Christopher Conner in Harrisburg repeatedly sealed documents at the school’s request.

Beginning in July 2017, he even sealed the documents that the Hershey School drafted to explain why it wanted to seal them, an unusual circumstance, First Amendment lawyers say.

On Thursday morning, The Inquirer filed motions to intervene, saying that the public has a right to open courts and that there is a compelling public interest to know what’s going on at the state’s richest charity, with assets of about $6 million per student. The school’s president, Peter Gurt, is compensated about $700,000 a year and the boarding institution spends $115,000 a year on each at-risk student.

Representing The Inquirer in the court actions in Harrisburg is the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press in Washington, a nonprofit group that has sought to unseal documents in cases involving Donald Trump, the Robert Mueller investigation, and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Ballard Spahr attorney Michael Berry in Philadelphia is assisting as local counsel.

“Allegations that a charitable school charged with caring for vulnerable students failed to live up to its obligations to those students is unquestionably a matter of public concern," said Katie Townsend, the group’s legal director.

“But given the extensive amount of sealing in these cases, the public has little information about how the judicial system is handling the plaintiffs’ claims, and the press is not able to report thoroughly on plaintiffs’ allegations,” she said. "In a situation like this, it is important for members of the news media to go to court to assert the public’s right to access the sealed court records.”

Townsend said that ''wholesale sealing of motions to seal should not happen in any kind of case; arguments for sealing need to be public so that members of the media and others can argue against sealing."

The school — which has close ties to some of the most politically connected individuals in Pennsylvania and controls the Hershey chocolate company — recruits low-income children as young as first graders throughout Philadelphia and the northeastern United States to its free program.

The Inquirer informed the Hershey School and its attorneys Monday of its plan to intervene to unseal the documents.

Hershey School spokesperson Lisa Scullin said on Thursday morning that “we support the decision made by the U.S. Middle District Court to seal these documents and will vigorously fight this motion. The court understood the importance of the safety and security of our students and their personal and medical information.”

In one lawsuit, eighth grader Abbie Bartels committed suicide two weeks after being banned from the boarding campus and told to live with her separated parents in 2013. A student since the first grade at the Hershey School, she was treated for deep depression in eighth grade. The lawsuit brought by her parents and her estate alleges that she was expelled for depression and having suicidal thoughts. The suit seeks financial damages and school reforms.

Abbie Bartels, 14, hanged herself at 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.
The Chocolate Trust
Abbie Bartels, 14, hanged herself at 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.

In the other case, high school junior Adam Dobson had suicidal thoughts and wrapped a belt around his neck but did not carry out a suicide, his lawsuit says. He was expelled in 2013 after the belt episode, which he reported to the school.

Dobson contends that he was forced to watch an hour-long gay-conversion tape as punishment at his boarding home on the Hershey School campus, and that it was followed by a campaign of prayer sessions and other efforts to get him to change his sexual orientation. “We would pray together to have God help me from being gay,” Dobson told his lawyers. Dobson said he was also told by his house parents of “terrible things that happened to other gay people.”

The Hershey School has denied having an antigay culture on its campus.

The two child-care lawsuits have spawned broader litigation. Hershey School graduate and activist F. Frederic Fouad claims in a lawsuit that the Hershey School has used those child-care suits to intimidate and harass him with subpoenas. He has sued the Hershey Trust board members, president Gurt, and the school’s law firm, Elliott Greenleaf.

Scullin said the institution believes that the Fouad suit — in addition to the former student lawsuits — is meritless. “We are confident we will prevail through the legal process," she said. "We will have our day in court in all of these matters.”

Altogether, Conner has sealed about 20 docket items in the Bartels and Dobson cases, according to court records. Based on the notations in the record, it’s hard to know what the documents are.

The first of the sealed documents was filed July 28, 2017, in the Dobson case, around the time that The Inquirer published a story on how Hershey School students were subjected to antigay videos.

In June 2018, Judge Conner sealed the Hershey School’s motion for summary judgment that explained why there wasn’t sufficient evidence to take the Bartels case to a jury after extensive discovery and 24 depositions. Included in Conner’s sealing were about 70 exhibits filed by the school — basically the evidence of the entire case at that time.

Conner also sealed the response by the Bartels attorneys at the Dilworth Paxson firm in Philadelphia, including its exhibits. Conner later denied the Hershey School’s motion to end the case.

Last October, Conner sealed a Pennsylvania state agency document related to a third former Hershey School student who was depressed and harbored suicidal thoughts and had been expelled from the school — circumstances similar to those of Bartels and Dobson. The Inquirer downloaded the document on the federal court’s e-filing system before the sealing took effect. As part of the motions filed Thursday, The Inquirer asked the court to unseal this document along with others.

Conner is no longer presiding over the cases. The Hershey School’s defense firm, Elliott Greenleaf, based in Blue Bell, hired his son Gregory as an associate lawyer in its Harrisburg office. In late January, Conner reassigned the Hershey cases to U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III.

Over the last nine years, the Hershey School, which is funded by a steady stream of Hershey Co. dividends, has been investigated twice by the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office, leading to settlement agreements between the education institution and the state’s top law enforcement agency.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro has said he expects the Hershey School — whose $14 billion endowment is slightly larger than the University of Pennsylvania’s — to use its wealth to help many more poor Pennsylvania students. But the institution — which is controlled by a trust board whose members earn a minimum of $110,000 — has not disclosed how or when it intends to expand the school’s services.