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Milton Hershey School isn’t legally liable for suicide of 14-year-old ex-student, U.S. appeals court agrees

Patriot-News - 2/2/2021

Although it agreed the case is “tragic,” a federal appeals court has refused to revive a lawsuit filed against the Milton Hershey School over the suicide of a 14-year-old former student.

The decision by a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit seems likely to end the legal battle over the death of Abrielle Bartels, who hanged herself in a closet at her legal guardian’s home in June 2013, days after being barred from attending the graduation ceremony and after party for her eighth-grade class.

Bartels’ family appealed to the circuit court after U.S. Middle District Chief Judge John E. Jones III dismissed its suit against the school last March. Like Jones, the circuit judges concluded the family lacked legal grounds to hold the school responsible for Bartels’ death.

“A death by suicide is tragic. But not every tragedy leads to legal liability,” Judge Stephanos Bibas wrote in the circuit court’s opinion.

Bartels’ family contended the charitable school’s decision to exclude her from the graduation and party – she had attended the school since kindergarten – was a major factor prompting her suicide. The ban came after repeated counseling and voluntary hospitalizations for mental health issues, including suicidal urges. School officials, who had been trying to treat the girl and had helped arrange her voluntary mental health commitments, told Bartels’ family that it was unable to provide adequate care for her emotional issues, Jones noted in his ruling on the case.

Her family, from Steelton Newport, contended her ouster from the school violated federal housing laws and plunged Bartels into an “assertedly unstable environment” very different from the structured one she was used to at Milton Hershey. They insisted school administrators violated their own policies and had not provided a coordinated educational/health plan for Bartels.

Bibas found that school officials did what they could to address Bartels’ issues, but the school was not equipped to deal with them fully.

“It is not a licensed mental-health or residential-treatment center. Nor do its psychologists have admitting privileges at any in- patient psychiatric hospital. Instead, the school leaves high-level care to outside experts,” he wrote. He noted Bartels was discharged from a psychiatric institute two days before the eighth-grade graduation.

Milton Hershey officials decided to bar Bartels from the graduation rites because “the school had decided that it could not support the level of care that Abbie needed right then,” Bibas wrote. “Though that was disappointing, her father’s girlfriend reported that Abbie seemed to understand the decision.”

Bartels killed herself just over a week later.

Bibas found that Bartels’ case didn’t fall under federal housing law because her accommodations at the school were free. Nor was she in the care of the school after she was admitted to the psychiatric center, he concluded. “When she died over the summer break, she was in her parents’ custody, not the school’s,” Bibas added.

“Once the child is out of a school’s control, the school no longer stands in the shoes of the parents,” the circuit judge wrote. “When a student returns to her parents, it is typically the parents who are responsible for her, not the school.”

He also rejected the family’s claim that school officials had inflicted emotional distress on the girl.

“No such conduct happened here,” Bibas concluded. “On the contrary, the school acted reasonably: it put Abbie in the care of licensed mental-health professionals. None of its actions was reprehensible. There is nothing intolerable about making sure a suicidal student gets professional treatment before returning to campus.”


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