The Thacher School, one of California’s most elite private schools, recently acknowledged decades of allegations of sexual assault, harassment, and “boundary crossing” of students by facutly members.
In a public report posted on its website, the Ojai boarding school recounted instances of alleged rape, unwanted touching, groping, and innapropriate comments spanning over a period of 40 years. It also includes alleged efforts by previous school administrators to cover up student complaints and blame the victims.
For instance, one case involved an English teacher at Thacher. A student stated that while feeling “lost” and homesick during freshman year, the teacher befriended her, kissed her, and touched her body without her consent. She then also alleged numerous instances of rape that started in her sophmore year and continued into her junior year.
The report also enumerated several similar instances of abuse by faculty members, as well as failures by school administrators to properly report and handle such cases.
Statement on the School’s Failures
Thachter’s board of trustees also released a statement acknowledging the consequences of its failure to properly enforce mandatory reporting requirements for sexual abuse allegations to law enforcement. A few major initial conclusions contained in the statement include:
- The school failed to properly protect students and alumni and failed to follow up on students’ reports of sexual misconduct.
- Many students suffered lasting harm not only from the sexual misconduct itself, but also from the way the school handled the misconduct. Several students were shamed, silenced, and subject to false narratives about the occurrences of sexual misconduct.
- The school tolerated and even fostered a culture that valued the experiences and voices of boys and men over those of girls and women. This also allowed sexual abuse and asssault to be ignored, dismissed, and minimized.
The long-term effects of childhood and teen sexual abuse are well-documented. The traumas experienced by young and adolescent survivors can create symptoms and conditions that begin immediately after the abuse and persist well into late adulthood. These include depression, anxiety, PTSD, substance abuse, eating disorders, and suicidal tendencies.
Expanded Filing Window Helps Survivors File Additional Claims
Due to these life-long effects of abuse, obtaining justice for the wrongdoings is an essential part of recovery for survivors of the incidents at Thacher. This is true even if many of these cases happened several decades ago.
Although the incidents spanned 40 years, a California law took effect in 2020 that opened a three-year filing window for sexual abuse survivors to file claims that might have otherwise expired due to the previous statute of limitations.
The law also extends the statute of limitations for reporting childhood sexual abuse from age 26 to age 40. This may help allow additional survivors to come forward and seek legal remedies for the abuses they endured.
Addressing Administrative Cover-Ups
A main reason why such heinous crimes were allowed to persist for so long at Thacher is the fact that the administration on campus played a major role in covering up and hiding such incidents.
Such patterns of administrative cover-up and cultures that promote sexual misconduct are also often found on college campuses, where abuses are often hushed up or statistics skewed so as not to harm enrollment numbers.
Willard Wyman, who served as head of Thacher from 1975 to 1992, once instructed a survivor’s mother that it would be in her daughter’s best interest “not to press charges, as it would further isolate her from her peers.” Wyman himself was later found to have committed a “pattern of offensive verbal conduct and improper touching” toward female students and staff. Investigations revealed at least 17 incidents of misconduct by Wyman.
Another faculty member, Michael Mulligan, who succeeded Wyman as dean of the school in the 1980s, hired a girls’ varsity soccer coach who’d previously engaged in an inappropriate relationship with a female student in New England.
According to reports, that same coach began spending a lot of time alone with a student, including in his house and car. Later, he invited the student into his house and massaged her back and shoulders. The student’s parents reached out to Mulligan, but the coach ultimately kept his job.
Thus, it is clear that eradicating structural, built-in failures from the top-down is essential in cases like the Thacher School abuses. As mentioned, much of the trauma that the survivors at Thacher endured also had to do with the way their cases were disregarded and how their voices were silenced.
Preventing Future Instances of Abuse
In an effort to prevent future abuses and prevent further sexual misconduct, Thacher officials announced that the school would implement “corrective actions” and create a task force to specifically address such issues. The school will be establishing a “comprehensive protocol” for adult-on-student sexual abuses. This will involve:
- Bringing in a third-party investigator and response team trained in addressing allegations of sexual abuse
- Adopting policies to inform the student body and other institutions regarding outgoing employees
- Strengthening restrictions on hiring employees who have a reported history of sexual misconduct
- Increasing resources for students to report sexual misconduct
- Improving counseling services
These measures are intended to revise the school’s current policies and procedures for dealing with sexual misconduct allegations by students. However, the real challenge will be in actually implementing such changes, as well as undoing the culture of abuse and misogyny that existed at the school for decades.
For schools, simply having policies and procedures in the books is just the first step, but it’s not enough. What is needed is action and continued vigilance to ensure the safety and well-being of students.
One of the greatest difficulties in sexual misconduct cases is that survivors are often hesitant to speak up about these incidents in the first place. They may experience feelings of shame, guilt, and confusion surrounding the incident.
The Pride Law Firm recognizes those members of the community who bravely step forward to share their stories. We understand how difficult it can be to speak out on such sensitive topics, and we are grateful for them for doing so. Their courage helps prevent future instances of sexual misconduct and changes the way private institutions handle such incidents.
At the Pride Law Firm, we aim to uncover situations where systemic and cultural behavior allows sexual misconduct to occur on a repeated basis. If you or a loved one have been affected by sexual abuse, it is your right to have your voice heard so justice can be served. Reach out to us at (619) 516-8166 if you need guidance or advice on such matters. Our attorneys understand that the trauma that survivors undergo can be life-altering and devastating to deal with, and we are here to provide support at each step.