Trial date set in Hershey School antibias case

Jury selection is tentatively scheduled for April 2018 in the case of Adam Dobson, a gay man who alleges anti-disability bias at the Milton Hershey School. 

Dobson, 22, filed suit last year, seeking an undisclosed amount in damages and remedial measures from the school. 

The school in Hershey serves underprivileged youth from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade. Students live on campus in cottages with assigned house parents.

Dobson was enrolled in the school for several years prior to his expulsion in 2013.

Dobson alleges that school officials discriminated against him because of his depression, an impairment that’s covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

Additionally, Dobson alleges a house parent tried to persuade him to change his sexual orientation through antigay “conversion therapy,” which exacerbated his depression.

John W. Schmehl, an attorney for Dobson, issued this statement:

“In a nutshell, we think antigay bias is a component of this case. We allege that Adam was mistreated by religiously oriented house parents who apparently believe in conversion therapy. He was given the Hobson’s choice of discipline points that could reduce his college scholarship assistance and other privileges or watch the [antigay] videos. He was then ‘persuaded’ to participate in antigay prayer sessions in order to convince him to change his sexual orientation.” 

Schmehl said Dobson “suffered emotionally because of these actions — a connection the school sadly refuses to acknowledge. His depression increased to such a point that he needed hospitalization. After admission for a second hospitalization for short-term psychiatric care, he wasn’t allowed to return to the school. So, yes, antigay bias is very much at play in this case.”

Schmehl added, that the actions came from those charged with his care exacerbated the situation, “as the child is led to believe they are looking out for his best interests. One of the remedies sought in Adam’s complaint is for the school to set up a therapeutic home for students with increased mental-health needs, rather than sending them back into poverty. The school has a $14-billion endowment and 43 mental-health professionals on staff. So we think that’s an easily feasible accommodation. Another remedy we seek is for all students threatened with expulsion to have an advocate appointed for them to plead their case [to remain at the school]. If Adam had an advocate, the gay-conversion activities would have been exposed. We’re prepared to go to trial to accomplish these goals, if we have to. Despite the school’s protestations, these persuasions were not benign.”

Lisa Scullin, a spokesperson for the school, issued this statement: 

“The Milton Hershey School promotes a culture of inclusiveness and acceptance. At the heart of the school are the children whose diversity and unique personal experiences help create a warm, accepting community. Unequivocally, the school does not endorse any program that includes gay conversion therapy — nor would it support abuse or discrimination based on sexuality. The case — like others recently manufactured in hopes of changing the mission of the school — claims this individual was discriminated against based upon his mental health. He was not. And the circumstances of his enrollment will be shared in the proper forum: the court where he initiated his case. The allegation that his house parent forced him to watch a video to ‘cure him of being gay’ is despicable. The plaintiff’s former house parent, Deanna Slamans, is a proud alumna and has shared her story of overcoming adversity with hundreds of students.”

Slamans also issued a statement: 

“Spending my own childhood as an African-American growing up in poverty and experiencing personally the emotional impact discrimination of any kind can have on a child, I am offended and heartbroken by the allegations in this complaint. During my years at [the school] as both a student and house parent — as well as raising my own children in an interracial marriage — I am extremely sensitive to students’ backgrounds and the acceptance and support all children need to thrive. Adam Dobson experienced that in our student home. Any suggestion otherwise is untrue. And I know that Adam knows that, too.”

Jury selection is tentatively set for 9:30 a.m. April 2 at the Ronald Reagan Court House, 228 Walnut St. in Harrisburg, with U.S. District Judge Christopher C. Conner presiding.

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Tim Cwiek has been writing for PGN since the 1970s. He holds a bachelor's degree in history from West Chester State University. In 2013, he received a Sigma Delta Chi Investigative Reporting Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for his reporting on the Nizah Morris case. Cwiek was the first reporter for an LGBT media outlet to win an award from that national organization. He's also received awards from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, the National Newspaper Association, and the Keystone Press.