• Wed. Jan 26th, 2022


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Thacher, a California Prep School, Apologizes for Past Sex Abuse

Several faculty members at the private, coed Thacher School in California sexually abused and harassed students or engaged in inappropriate relationships with them, according to a report released by the school, which detailed allegations that went back to the 1980s.

In one harrowing case, a teacher allegedly raped a 16-year-old student, then continued to abuse her for at least a year. Other students and parents described inappropriate touching by a headmaster.

In another case, a former student told investigators that she and her roommate had reported that two male students had sexually assaulted them in their room at the boarding school in the 1990s, the report said.

The 91-page report, released on Wednesday, said students told investigators that their complaints were met with indifference and shame by administrators at the college preparatory school for grades nine through 12 in Ojai, a city of about 7,400 in Ventura County.

The school’s board of trustees commissioned an investigation after the school said it received reports of sexual misconduct in the summer of 2020.

The report, which was prepared by the law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson of Los Angeles, is graphic at times in its descriptions of the abuse that former students said they suffered. It said the findings were based on interviews with 120 former Thacher students, parents, and current and former faculty members, staff members, administrators and board members.

The head of the school, Blossom Beatty Pidduck, apologized to students and alumni in a letter that was posted on the school’s website, along with the report.

“I am deeply sorry for the ways we — your School — failed you, and for the hurt and harm that failure has wrought,” she wrote. “While these failures should never have been, they can now become our profound teachers, helping us to see clearly so that we can take action to create what must be, a community where all students are safe and nurtured.”

The findings by the law firm echoed accusations that have roiled other prep schools around the country in the last decade.

In 2016, at least eight schools across New England, including St. George’s School in Rhode Island and the Taft School in Connecticut, said they were investigating cases of misconduct, according to The Boston Globe. St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H., was described as a “haven for sexual predators” in a lawsuit filed in 2018.

In 2013, the Horace Mann School in New York reached a settlement totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars with former students who said they were sexually abused by staff members from the 1970s to the 1990s.

Dan Yih, the chair of the Thacher board of trustees, said the report “makes clear” that the board, the faculty and administrators failed to protect the students at the school.

“We have learned a great deal about our history over the past several months — much of which has been difficult to confront,” he wrote.

The Ventura County Sheriff’s Office received a copy of the report from the school on Wednesday, and investigators are reviewing the allegations, Capt. Eric Buschow, a spokesman for the department, said.

“They’re evaluating each incident to see if it’s a crime and if it’s within statute and to see if an investigation can even be done at this point,” he said.

The report named six former faculty members, including an English teacher who it said sexually assaulted a 16-year-old sophomore just before she went on a camping trip at the start of the school year.

The former student said in the report that after the assault, “I bled for an entire week.”

“I was alone in the woods with my classmates with no comfort or support,” she said.

The teacher continued to abuse her and sexually assault her for the rest of the year and into her junior year, she said. He became violent, she said, once throwing her across a room so hard that she was knocked unconscious.

“For me, there was no escape,” she said, according to the report.

When she spoke to the assistant headmaster about the sexual abuse, she said he pressed her for “specific details” and asked her if she “enjoyed” it, the report stated.

The report also described the accounts of a former student who said she and her roommate were sexually assaulted by two male students in the 1990s when she was a senior.

The boys came into their room while they were sleeping and forced them to have sex even after the girls repeatedly said no and told them to leave, the former student told investigators.

When the girls complained, the head of the school at the time, Michael Mulligan, allegedly told them “they did not have a leg to stand on because they did not do enough to stop the boys,” according to the report.

Mr. Mulligan, who was interviewed by lawyers for the firm, said in the report that he recalled meeting with the students, but did not remember either one of them saying they had been sexually assaulted.

In an open letter to the school dated June 12, Mr. Mulligan said he was “heartsick” over the “experiences” that many former students described.

“I particularly regret situations where certain decisions I made contributed to this suffering, and I fully accept that criticism,” he wrote in the letter. “I am genuinely sorry.”

The report includes accounts from other students and parents who described one headmaster who was often drunk and touched girls on their thighs and buttocks.

On camping trips, the headmaster, who died in 2014, “would encourage female students to put on bikini shows for the boys,” according to the report.

Some of the faculty members resigned or were fired after the allegations surfaced, according to the report.

One former college counselor who was fired in 1997 after groping a student went on to work at other prep schools, according to the report. Investigators for the law firm reached out to the counselor to ask him about that and allegations of sexual misconduct with other female students.

He declined to be interviewed, but in an email to the investigators he said he was “rightfully fired” and had felt “deep shame and regret” ever since.

“I have been very happily married for over 22 years, have a daughter in college, and live now in a quiet, simple retirement where the garden or a walk is generally the most exciting part of my days,” he wrote. “That is enough.”

Mr. Yih encouraged students and alumni to continue to come forward with allegations.

He wrote, “We recognize that the pain and trauma that survivors experienced is real and long-lasting.”