A year ago, when a former student accused the Milton Hershey School of forcing him to watch a video meant to convert him from homosexuality, the school called the allegation "outrageous" and said it would never condone such behavior.
Now in court documents, the school's lawyers admit that such a video was used by Hershey house parents and that it was shown to at least one student. The school maintains it doesn't know whether the tape was shown to Adam Dobson, the former student who is now suing the private school in federal court.
Dobson contends that he was forced to watch the hour-long gay conversion tape as punishment, 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 told by his house parents of "terrible things that happened to other gay people."
Mainstream health-care and education groups have discredited "conversion therapies" as demeaning and useless.
After the filing of the suit in mid-2016, Hershey School spokeswoman Lisa Scullin called the video-watching claim "an outrageous allegation and a practice the administration would never allow or condone."
In a statement Friday, she said "unequivocally, the school does not promote or endorse any program that could be remotely characterized as gay conversion therapy. Any suggestion otherwise is a gross mischaracterization of our values and the environment on our campus."
As for the Dobson case, Scullin said "the discovery process is ongoing. Once witnesses are deposed, a full picture will emerge and the credible facts will become clear."
The Dobson suit is the latest problem at the Hershey School, the nation's richest private school and largely financed by Hershey chocolate and Reese's peanut butter cup profits, and part of a widening legal battle over student care. Also in 2016, the parents of another student, Abbie Bartels, sued the Hershey School, which banned the eighth-grade girl from the school's campus after she was treated in a short-term psychiatric facility for suicidal thoughts. She hanged herself two weeks later in June 2013.
Both cases are being litigated in federal court in Harrisburg, and they claim negligence and violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The Hershey School enrolls 2,000 children from kindergarten through senior year of high school. Students live on the school's leafy campus of several thousand acres in about 175 individual homes, staffed by surrogate parents who are school employees and who teach the students values. Costs are well over $100,000 a child. Experts have long criticized the layout, saying that the number of homes can be inherently difficult to manage because they are so spread out and isolated from students' families.
The Pennsylvania attorney general has repeatedly investigated the school, which is now reconstituting its oversight boards as part of the latest settlement with the state law-enforcement agency. The results have failed to mollify critics so far. Politically connected board members have continued to earn a minimum of $110,000 a year, or potentially more than $1 million over 10-year tenures. There are still no national experts on education, poverty, and child psychology on the boards with direct oversight of the school.
Scullin said in her statement that the Hershey School has "high measures of success in all areas" and a staff with "unwavering commitment to helping children find their unique gifts and passions in order to break the cycle of poverty and lead fulfilling lives."
Dobson has told his lawyers that he was forced to watch a Sy Rogers video with his house parents as punishment for downloading gay porn as a freshman, which was flagged by the school's IT department.
Rogers, whose website says he has been married since 1982, was a leader in the ex-gay movement as an official with the now-defunct Exodus International. He lived a flamboyantly gay lifestyle and had begun a sex-change to become a woman when religion put him on a new path, according to his preaching and public statements.
A disclaimer on the video says that minors should not watch it. Dobson has said he was a freshman in high school around 2010 when he was compelled to. In One of the Boys, Rogers compares homosexuality to male prostitutes and adulterers.
As a junior in high school, Dobson had suicidal thoughts and wrapped a belt around his neck but did not carry out a suicide, the lawsuit says. He was expelled in 2013 after the belt episode, which he reported to the school.
The Hershey School house parents are identified in discovery documents as Deanna and Andrew Slamans. A Hershey School graduate, Deanna Slamans was promoted to curriculum supervisor for social emotional learning in May 2014, but left the school last month, according to her LinkedIn account. She is also the author of the 2013 book Faith's Pursuit: Understanding God's Faithfulness in Suffering. On his LinkedIn account, Andrew Slamans lists himself as a director in the school's home life division. His Twitter account indicates that he's also a director of an Amazon-related marketing venture. Neither could be reached for comment. The school said it doesn't comment on personnel matters.
Jack Drescher, a fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, said that there is no scientific evidence that sexual orientation can be changed through conversion therapies or ex-gay ministries, and that there are potential harms from them.
"These are techniques that have no proven value but they can shame and humiliate a child by distorting the meaning of being gay and creating the false impression that the child is defective," he said. "There is nothing professional about this."
Nine states have made it illegal for licensed health-care professionals to attempt conversion therapy on minors, and many other legislatures are considering doing the same, experts say.