Is Milton Hershey School to Blame for Abbie Bartels’ Suicide?

Her parents say that the prestigious boarding school discarded her when she became depressed. They call the school's actions "a virtual death sentence."

Abbie Bartels. (Photos via Twitter)

Abbie Bartels. (Photos via Twitter)

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a statement from Milton Hershey School.

It has been three years since 14-year-old Pennsylvania girl Abbie Bartels died by suicide, and now her parents have filed a lawsuit against the prestigious Milton Hershey School in Hershey, Pennsylvania, accusing the boarding school of causing her death by expelling Bartels and barring her from eighth grade graduation after she expressed a desire to harm herself.

Bartels’ parents had financial and personal problems, and so she began living at the Milton Hershey School when she was 5 years old. The school is free to attend, and admission is based on, among other things, monetary need and life circumstance. With an endowment of more than $10 billion, the school is one of the largest and wealthiest of its kind.

According to the lawsuit, filed in Philadelphia’s federal court, Bartels was a model student. She received top grades and had aspirations of becoming an FBI agent. She regularly achieved the honor roll and was on the swim team and anti-bullying committee. But toward the end of the eighth grade, after being bullied herself, Bartels became severely depressed, and things started to unravel.

At the beginning of May 2013, Bartels was admitted to an on-campus hospital after she told her houseparents that she wanted to hurt herself. (Students at the Milton Hershey School live in small groups under the authority and guidance of husband-and-wife “houseparent” teams, who are to teach and uphold the religious values on which the school was founded.) She eventually told doctors that she had recently cut herself intentionally with a rock and that she had once duct-taped a pillow to her face.

Throughout May 2013, Bartels’ depression grew worse, and she was transferred to an off-campus mental health facility. After less than two weeks of treatment, Bartels was discharged, and doctors there recommended that she continue to live at and receive treatment at the Milton Hershey School.

After a brief return to the school, Bartels again expressed a desire to harm herself, and she was again transferred to an off-campus facility. Once she was discharged, the school expelled Bartels, claims the suit, which alleges that the school maintained a “shadow policy” that said that a student would be automatically expelled after two hospitalizations in external mental health facilities. The possibility of a one-year leave-of-absence was discussed, and Bartels was sent to live with her family, in an environment that the suit describes as “chaotic” and unhealthy.

On June 19th, claims the suit, a school official informed Bartels that she would probably never return to the school. One day later, she was told that she could not attend her 8th grade graduation, in spite of her on-campus doctor’s recommendation that she be allowed to participate. He called her an “excellent student” and “well-behaved.”

Nine days after she learned that she was barred from graduation, Bartels hanged herself with the belt of her bathrobe at her father’s home near Harrisburg. “Milton Hershey School’s actions were a virtual death sentence to a vulnerable and sensitive child,” argues the suit. “Abbie’s suicide was completely preventable.”

The suit claims that it’s not the first time that a student at the Milton Hershey School was expelled due to depression or suicidal ideations and mentions a few specific incidents. According to the lawsuit, when one board member openly questioned the decision to expel a suicidal student in 2010, “a senior Milton Hershey School official stated words to the effect that Milton Hershey School did not want the publicity of someone killing themselves at the Milton Hershey School.”

Bartels’ death did not go unnoticed. The circumstances surrounding her departure from the Milton Hershey School and her subsequent suicide received media attention, including an investigation on Anderson Cooper 360. During that segment, Bartels’ mother said she told the school, “What are you, a bunch of morons?” when they said that she would be excluded from graduation.

The suit accuses the school of wrongful death, intentional creation of danger, negligence, and conspiracy to endanger children, among other offenses and seeks unspecified damages. The suit also seeks injunctions and orders that would require the school to set up a therapeutic home for seriously depressed students and that would prohibit the school from expelling students on the basis of mental illness.

On the same day that this suit was filed, a New York man filed his own lawsuit against the Milton Hershey School, claiming he received similar treatment after becoming depressed while a student there.

In 2012, the school settled a lawsuit filed by the parents of a 14-year-old boy who was denied admission into the Milton Hershey School because he was HIV positive. As a result of that settlement, the Milton Hershey School entered into agreements with the United States Department of Justice and the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office, promising to make certain changes and reforms.

Earlier this year, the AG’s office stated that the school is in violation of its agreement with that office, in part because the school failed to “secure new board members with experience in early childhood education as well as at-risk dependent children.” The Milton Hershey School is said to be the target of a federal probe that it violated the civil rights of disabled students.

Asked for comment, the school provided this statement:

“MHS is firmly committed to the safety and fair treatment of our students, many of whom qualify for accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. We are proud of how we are able to meet their individual needs so they can be successful, including by offering a state-of-the-art, 24-hour health services clinic that provides medical, psychological and behavioral services. Unfortunately, some children have very severe emotional or mental health issues that go beyond our school’s ability to help them. These students need to be cared for in a professional health care environment, not in a boarding school setting. It’s important to remember that, first and foremost, we are a school for children from poverty. Our mission is to help them acquire the academic, career and social-emotional skills they need to lead a productive and fulfilling life.”

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