Another student at the Milton Hershey School says he felt forced to watch a religious anti-gay video.
Marcous Marchese, a 2011 graduate, said that he was told initially that he could view the hour-long video privately in one of the school's boarding homes using headphones and accompanied by classmate James Stankunas. But when it came time, Marchese said, the video was shown at the dining room table with the sound on as other students looked on.
"I was a wreck. I closed [the laptop] and got the heck out of there," recalled Marchese, now 24 and living in Vermont. "You should not have people make you feel like you are the scum of the earth."
Stankunas, in a statement through the school's communications office on Friday, challenged Marchese's account and said his classmate's former house parents were loving and supportive. "I was there and I personally did not feel like I was forced to watch it," said Stankunas, also a 2011 graduate. He could not be reached for more comment.
Marchese recalled his experience after reading about a federal suit filed last year by former Hershey student Adam Dobson, who claims that he was expelled because of his suicidal thoughts. Dobson said he was forced to watch the anti-gay video around the same time in 2010.
The school's lawyers admitted in filings for Dobson's suit that a set of house parents possessed the Sy Rogers video One of the Boys and had shown it to at least one classmate of Dobson's, though not to him. Based on this disclosure, court records, and the school's statements, four boys could have watched the video: Dobson, who made the original claim in his suit; the unidentified classmate who the school said in discovery documents was shown the video; and Marchese and Stankunas.
Health experts have discredited such "conversion therapies" as demeaning and useless.
School spokeswoman Lisa Scullin said in a statement that the school's psychologists "would never condone any form of 'gay conversion therapy.' " She said "it has always been, and remains, the policy of MHS that no houseparent administers therapy of any kind to any student." She called the video-watching a "sideshow."
The Hershey school enrolls 2,000 poor children from kindergarten through high school. Students live on the school's leafy campus of several thousand acres in about 175 individual homes, staffed by surrogate parents. Experts have long criticized the layout, saying the separate homes can be hard to manage.
The Hershey school is free because it is funded by Hershey chocolate profits. Its $13.8 billion endowment dwarfs that of other private K-12 schools.
Around 2010, Dobson said, he was forced to watch the Sy Rogers video by house parents Deanna and Andrew Slamans as punishment for downloading gay pornography.
After the video was shown, Dobson says, he was subjected to a campaign of prayer sessions with his house parents to help him renounce homosexuality.
Nine states have made it illegal for licensed health professionals to attempt conversion therapy on minors, and other legislatures are considering doing the same.
Dobson later attempted suicide by wrapping a belt around his neck. He said he was expelled when he told school officials of his suicidal thoughts.
In the school's statement, Deanna Slamans said she was "offended and heartbroken" by Dobson's allegations.
"During my years at MHS 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."
The school also cited a statement from Nick Miller, Class of 2014, who lived with the couple for three years. "They have done so much for so many people," he said.
Marchese said he lived in the same student home as Dobson and had the Slamans couple as house parents. As an 11th grader, he said, he was asked by the Slamans to watch the anti-gay video with Stankunas, who the couple said was struggling with his faith and sexuality. Marchese had been friends with Stankunas, who lived in the adjacent student home, in earlier years.
Sy Rogers lived a flamboyantly gay lifestyle and had begun a gender change to become a woman when he found a new path through Christianity, he says. In the video, Rogers compares homosexuals to male prostitutes and adulterers.
Marchese, then a junior, called the tape "horrifying" and "embarrassing." He says the Slamans were good house parents and is thankful for the school, but called the video traumatic. "It's not like I look back every day and I am scarred," Marchese said. But "it's not the kind of ultimatum you give to a kid at that school."
Marchese went on to obtain an undergraduate degree in research psychology from Arcadia University in Glenside. He works as a freight broker and accountant and lives in Burlington, Vt.