In a win for the state’s richest charity, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III in Harrisburg dismissed claims against the Milton S. Hershey School over the death of a 14-year-old girl who was not allowed back on campus after a mental-health hospitalization.
Abrielle Bartels took her life about two weeks later in the home of her father’s girlfriend in 2013.
Bartels’ parents claimed discrimination and wrongful death by the 2,100-student free boarding school for low-income children. The school said in the litigation, which went on for almost four years, that it did all it could for her.
Jones agreed on Wednesday. “The panoply leading to Abrielle’s suicide, and her death itself, as revealed through abundant discovery that has been conducted in this case, are undeniably tragic,” he wrote. But he added that the suit could not be substantiated and closed it.
In dismissing the remaining five claims, Jones said in his 45-page memorandum that school officials “engaged in an individualized assessment of Abrielle’s condition, determined that Abrielle required a higher level of care, and then made a clinical call that it would be unable to meet Abrielle’s mental health needs upon discharge.”
Because it “refused to allow Abrielle to return to the school following her discharge from [off-campus mental-health treatment] does not indicate in and of itself that [the] defendant made that decision nefariously,” Jones said.
The Hershey School’s lead attorney, Jarad Handelman, said on Thursday that “we have always maintained that the presentation of actual facts and evidence developed in this case would reveal the truth, and this decision confirms what we have always known — certain factual assumptions about the case were simply not true."
The Hershey School is the richest private school in the United States, with $13.8 billion in assets, according to its latest filing with the IRS. It owns a controlling interest in the Hershey Co. chocolate giant and a multi-billion-dollar investment portfolio. It currently spends $135,500 a year per student, according to a calculation based on the tax filing.
John Schmehl, the attorney for Bartels’ parents with the Dilworth Paxson firm, said on Thursday, “We’re still studying the opinion and have not decided on next steps.”
The suit was filed by parents Julie Wartluft and Fred Bartels in the summer of 2016. Initially presiding was the chief judge in the Harrisburg federal court, Christopher C. Conner. Amid the litigation, the Hershey School’s law firm, Elliott Greenleaf in Blue Bell, hired Conner’s son in its Harrisburg law office. Conner later reassigned the case to Jones.
Last year, The Inquirer and the Reporters Committee for a Free Press filed to unseal documents in the case. The court has ruled that the documents would be unsealed, with some redactions. The documents have not been released publicly.
Jones, in his Wednesday decision, dismissed negligence, housing discrimination, infliction of emotional distress, breach of fiduciary duty, and wrongful death claims. Other claims were dismissed earlier.
The parents claimed in the lawsuit that the Hershey School had a "social obligation to provide reasonable care for and to maintain the safety of vulnerable minor children in its care,” Jones wrote. Jones accepted the Hershey School’s legal position that its in loco parentis responsibility for the girl — who was enrolled from first through eighth grades — terminated when she was admitted for treatment at the off-campus mental-health facility.