Two Pennsylvania mothers say the $12.3-billion Milton Hershey School has refused to allow their children back onto campus after they became depressed and tried to take their lives, in the latest suicide-related incidents at the boarding school for impoverished students.
One of the mothers, who lives in Lancaster, has filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. The second mother lives in Cheltenham Township.
The school — which says it has a staff of more than 100 medical and behavorial-health professionals — placed their children on "medical leaves of absence" and returned them home, the mothers said. A national suicide expert said a school should not automatically expel or suspend a student struggling with suicide and that any decisions should be made in concert with the family.
The nation's richest private school spends about $118,400 a year per student on education and overhead, its latest tax return stated. Founded in 1909 as an orphanage, the charity still controls the Hershey Co. chocolate giant with its rich stream of stock dividends.
"It's so wrong," said Angel Adelizzi, the Lancaster mother of a 16-year-old boy. "I totally bought into the idea that they are a second family. Then he had a mental-health issue and they kicked him out."
In response to Adelizzi's complaint to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, a state agency that enforces anti-discrimination laws, the Hershey School said that her son "needed services that were not and could not be provided" at the school.
The scandal-plagued charity is already under a federal investigation for its treatment of children with disabilities, The Inquirer has reported.
In June, lawyers for former students Abbie Bartels and Adam Dobson filed separate federal lawsuits in Philadelphia federal court claiming that the charity discriminated against them after deep depression and suicidal thoughts.
Bartels, a 13-year-old girl, took her life two weeks after the Hershey School wouldn't let her back on campus in 2013. Her mother and father are suing the school.
The Bartels and Dobson suits — both recently transferred to the Harrisburg federal court — claim that the school's actions violate disability laws.
The laws say that an institution must reasonably accommodate individuals with mental or physical disabilities.
Hershey School spokeswoman Lisa Scullin said in a statement on Tuesday that there was not much that she could share about this story because of student confidentiality.
But she said that students are rarely placed on medical leave.
"Our goal is always to do what is best for the individual child and all children entrusted in our care. It's important to remember that, first and foremost, we are a school for high-potential children from poverty," she said.
Christine Moutier, the chief medical officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said that suicide rates have been trending up over the last two decades and while that should be a call to action for schools and communities, the rates are still statistically low — for 15-to-24 years-olds, about 12 suicides per 100,000.
Suicidal struggles are more common, and it would be the "rare school" that won't have to deal with suicide over time, she added.
Moutier said it was "absolutely not recommended" that a school automatically expel or suspend a student and that "it may be better for the student to remain in school."
Decisions should be made among the family, care providers and the institution, she said.
The Inquirer is withholding the names of the teenagers at the mothers' requests.
Kathy C. is a 51-year-old Cheltenham mother who undergoes 15 hours of dialysis a week for a hereditary kidney disease. The Inquirer is withholding her last name to protect the identity of her 16-year-old daughter who has the same name and enrolled at the Hershey School in September 2014 as an eighth grader.
Her daughter did well and liked it. She was depressed entering her freshman year and attempted suicide by overdosing on prescription pills.
The daughter was treated at a Hershey-area mental-health facility. The Hershey School put her on a leave of absence.
In June, her daughter said she wanted to be return to the Hershey School. Kathy C. said the school has dragged out the review. The school now says she might be readmitted in February — 17 months after the overdose incident.
The mother said she intends to file a complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, which investigates discrimination complaints and makes determinations. An unfavorable finding against the school can be appealed to court. She would like her daughter readmitted because she is better off there with regular meals and friends, Kathy C. said.
John Schmehl, a partner with Dilworth Paxon firm in Philadelphia, is representing the two mothers. He had no comment on Tuesday.
Adelizzi, 34, said her son enrolled in January 2012. All seemed well.
In August 2015, Hershey officials told students they should talk to house parents about mental-health concerns.
Adelizzi's son told his house parents who are school employees that he felt like hurting himself. "I praised him for seeking help," Adelizzi said. "That was brave for a teenager. He did the right thing."
Her son was treated at a mental-health facility. Doctors prescribed an anti-depressant.
Her son complained that he didn't like the medication because it made him tired. When he came home for the Easter holiday this year, he attempted to take his life. Adelizzi found him in his room and rushed him to the emergency room.
The school told Adelizzi that they did not think he should return to the campus and he would be put on medical leave.
Adelizzi opposed this. Her son also wanted to return to the school. "His life was there. His friends were there. I could not understand how they could do this and take away half of his support system. Being at Milton Hershey would be his normal."
The Hershey School gave Adelizzi a list of requirements she had to do for her son to be readmitted. The May 6 letter misspelled Adelizzi's first name and said her son would be on medical leave until Aug. 1, 2017.
One of the requirements for readmission was that Adelizzi had to enroll her son in a new school. Adelizzi's son worried that he would not attend public school with nice clothes and sneakers. At the Hershey School, the institution provides clothing and food for free.
He had never stolen before, Adelizzi said. But her son broke into several houses and was caught on a surveillance camera. He is now under mental-health evaluation at a facility in Allentown.