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Behind elite boarding school’s veneer of trust and family, sexual misconduct was ‘ignored’

The campus of a school is seen from above.
A Google Earth view of the Thacher School in Ojai.
(Google Earth)

For more than a year, administrators at the Thacher School in Ojai received complaints from students about their “top horseman,” a skilled and privileged upperclassman whom the boarding school had entrusted with teaching freshmen how to ride horses.

First, the student was accused of chasing freshmen girls and making sexual remarks. Then came allegations of sending abusive text messages and groping and kissing a fellow student. In another instance, when peers confronted him over homophobic remarks, the top horseman allegedly tried to hit two classmates with a belt and put one in a chokehold.

After three freshmen girls came forward and recounted allegations of sexual harassment, prurient remarks and repeated, unwanted sexual touching, then-Head of School Michael Mulligan suspended the horseman for four days, prompting an uproar for the perceived leniency among many students and parents at the exclusive, $64,700-a-year institution.

“I promise you, this sent a powerful message to the students that confirmed their belief that this individual was in a very special protected category,” wrote a parent to Mulligan.

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The account, which occurred in the last decade at the Thacher School, among the nation’s most selective boarding schools, is one of many episodes of alleged misconduct in an extraordinary 91-page report released last week by its trustees, who concluded that Thacher failed to properly protect its students and alumni.

The report excavated open secrets and long-buried trauma at a school with a very different campus culture from that of its more buttoned-up East Coast rivals.

The allegations of misconduct and inappropriate “boundary crossing” at the Thacher School date to the 1980s.

The Thacher School centered rugged, Western ideals, and its unofficial motto comes from founder Sherman Day Thacher, who said, “There’s something about the outside of a horse that’s good for the inside of a boy.” A New England-bred Yale graduate, Thacher founded the school in an orange grove in 1889, and since the beginning, every first-year student has been assigned to care for a horse and learn to ride.

The school encourages informal, familial relationships among students and teachers, most of whom live on campus, dine and camp together. This, combined with rigorous academics, has long attracted the scions of some of the wealthiest families in the country, including the young Howard Hughes.

But these very values that distinguished Thacher created a climate in which boundaries blurred, leaving youths susceptible to grooming by adults, unchecked harassment and alleged rapes. The trustees concluded that school allowed “sexual misconduct to be minimized, ignored and dismissed.”

In the report, lawyers from the Los Angeles law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson documented in graphic detail allegations of sexual abuse and harassment by faculty and staff toward students over the span of four decades.

It also delved into how the school handled complaints of student-on-student sexual misconduct accusations, including the case of two girls who alleged they were raped — only to end up getting suspended andreprimanded for a “lack of self-respect and moral strength to stop the incident.”

In the days since the report’s release, Thacher announced it would meet with alumni and parents, while detectives with the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office indicated the report had sparked a broad criminal inquiry examining potential sex crimes.

But the public release, paired with letters of contrition from Blossom Beatty Pidduck, the current head of school; Daniel Yih, a private equity executive who leads the board of trustees; and Mulligan himself, has triggered shock, anger and betrayal in a very private school that markets itself as a beacon of integrity and decency.

“We are sickened by it. We are outraged,” said the father of a woman whose account of sexual victimization was documented in the report. The father, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as to not identify his daughter, felt misled by a school he thought would deliver a “safe, truthful, honor code experience.”

“And what did we get? Here I am ... gobsmacked and pissed off,” he said, adding that you “think this is a safe, wonderful place to put your daughter ... and then the predator strikes like a boa constrictor.”

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Sitting on 427 acres at the feet of the Los Padres National Forest, Thacher is an insular, rarefied school steeped in tradition, from vespers at the outdoor chapel overlooking the vistas of Ojai, to camping trips around California’s Central Coast. Students form tight bonds with faculty and administrators and sometimes visit their homes for tutoring or a chance to bake cookies.

Lucy Milligan Wahl, an alumna and a daughter of a current and former trustee, said in a Facebook post that she remembers wanting to feel “special” at Thacher, and pointed to an environment where improper relationships could flourish. “Grooming is such a sick and twisted thing,” she said.

“The people who were supposed to care for and protect us all failed you,” wrote Wahl, who declined to comment beyond her online post. She acknowledged being “protected by privilege” because her father, Marshall C. Milligan, was a trustee during her enrollment.

She noticed that there were people, including those named in the report, whom she never trusted: “I knew things weren’t right or fair for female students.”

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To Melanie Larkins, a 39-year-old alumna who started at Thacher in 1995 and later worked as a lacrosse coach, some of the stories detailed in the report were open secrets on campus, where inappropriate behavior was “normalized.” But reading allegations about a teacher and administrator who was her role model came as a shock.

“It’s like finding out stuff about your family,” Larkins said. “I started there when I was 13, so I’ve known these people my whole life.”

The person Larkins referenced, who resigned this month, told the school’s investigators that he always stayed within the bounds of appropriate conduct.

The allegations in the report have been a breaking point: “I’m really a little heartbroken — ‘devastated’ I think would be a good word,” she said.

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As the nation reckoned with centuries of racism after George Floyd’s murder in 2020, anonymous Instagram accounts at colleges, universities and high schools cropped up as forums for sharing experiences of racism and toxicity.

The accounts stand as a rare, unsparing and continually updating font of criticism to the guarded reputations of elite private schools. Their content has forced public apologies and strategic plans for change.

Against this backdrop, a current Thacher student scrolled on Instagram last summer and zeroed in on a page centered on queer life at the school.

“I saw comments on that account asking that someone make an account dedicated to allowing people to uncover rape culture at Thacher specifically,” the student told The Times. “That motivated me. I wanted to make a space like that.”

She launched @rpecultureatthacher, and the school was never the same.

Through an anonymous Google form, written memories of abuse and harassment poured in. The student — occasionally helped by alumni — posted excerpts, often with a trigger warning for the content that followed. The current and former head of school were tagged in nearly every post.

“In the boarding school setting, you’re so, so close with your teachers for better or for worse,” she said. “Your teachers, the administration are supposed to be your guardians, they’re supposed to be the people who protect you, look out for you, teach you, help you out.”

Weeks after the Instagram page started, Thacher’s trustees — an array of wealthy investors including Riley Bechtel, the billionaire heir to the Bechtel construction fortune — announced the hiring of Munger Tolles to investigate sexual misconduct and harassment.

Since the report was released last week, more reaction flooded to the Instagram page.

One current parent said that “hours later I am still shaken.” A 2006 alum called the report “deeply cathartic” and said, “This report is the tip of the iceberg.”

The student behind the Instagram account expressed a measure of gratitude.

“My first feeling was just such a sense of relief that Thacher has taken this first step,” she said. “Because I know most institutions will sweep things like this under the rug. It’s not perfect and obviously we have a long way to go.”

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When Michael Mulligan retired as Thacher’s long-serving head of school in 2018, the school bestowed the honor of naming its new, 412-seat dining hall after him and his wife, Joy, a beloved teacher and administrator.

Mulligan’s handling of a “#MeToo experience” surfaced at his farewell gala, where 1992 graduate Christine Carter, an author and sociologist, recalled once telling Mulligan of a painful episode she had endured in her life.

According to Carter, Mulligan burst into tears, and she credited his response for influencing her career.

“You helped me see that hardship could be a blessing when it spurs growth and you encouraged me to write about my experience,” Carter said.

But in the findings from Munger Tolles, the lawyers laid out decisions by Mulligan that enabled misconduct or added to the harm of victims and their families. Although he was not among the six alleged perpetrators identified by name, his handling of complaints drew criticism and, as of Monday, about 250 people had signed an online petition to remove his name from the dining hall.

“I particularly regret situations where certain decisions I made contributed to this suffering, and I fully accept that criticism. I am genuinely sorry,” he said in a letter that Thacher published along with its report.

Among the decisions highlighted by the report: Mulligan had supported hiring a coach he met at a New England school in 1987, even though Mulligan, while working at that school, had discovered the coach had engaged in an inappropriate relationship with a girl on his team. Mulligan said he thought the coach would not make the same mistake again. At Thacher, the coach was later accused of sexual touching and unwanted advances, and was identified in the report by name.

Former students and their parents expressed concerns in the report that Mulligan and his administration propagated fears that reporting sexual misconduct might expose students to discipline.

In one notable incident, a former student who graduated in the 1990s alleged that she and her roommate were raped in the fall of their senior year by two drunk male students who had entered their dorm room while they were asleep.

The former student said that when they reported to Mulligan “exactly” what happened, he told them to “think long and hard” before using the word “rape” at Thacher, which she interpreted as him prioritizing the school’s reputation above their welfare. The former student said she and her roommate refrained from sharing further details out of fear and did not use the word “rape” again.

Mulligan reported the instance to the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office as well as the county’s child welfare service. According to the report, Mulligan’s account of the incident contradicted the former students’ descriptions. He contended the students never used the word “rape.” He said he believed the only nonconsensual activity was the boys’ entry to the dorm room. He also questioned one student’s memory of what happened.

The male students were ultimately expelled from the school. The girls were suspended following a determination that all students had violated the school’s dorm visitation policies as well as a prohibition of intimate behavior among students.

A faculty committee also chided the girls: “Though sound asleep when the boys first entered the room, both girls exhibited a profound lack of good sense and responsibility as prefects of their dorm, and sadly, a profound lack of self-respect and moral strength to stop the incident.”

When the female students returned the following semester, they believed many were angry with them for the male students’ expulsion, according to the student who detailed the allegations.

Mulligan declined an interview request. Thacher’s tax filings show Mulligan received more than $600,000 in the fiscal year ending in June 2020 from the school. His attorney, Michael Proctor, said the payment was “retirement compensation” that was to be paid over three years.

Asked whether Mulligan’s name should still grace the school’s dining hall, Proctor said, “Mr. Mulligan is proud that his efforts helped to contribute to the school’s premier standing in the field of secondary education, and he is honored that the board and the school have recognized him in this regard.”

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For most of its history, Thacher exclusively taught boys, and in contrast to its New England and mid-Atlantic peers — where students donned ties and blazers when not playing golf or tennis — Thacher boys were not afraid to get dirty.

Camping trips and horse riding formed students into a Thacher ideal: gritty, self-reliant, adventurous and curious, with a dash of bravado.

In the fall of 1976, trustees voted to accept female students and more than 50 girls were admitted the following year. When Abby Dees of Pasadena moved to campus for her sophomore year in 1980, she found an education experience that was “astonishing,” and helped her see why her father, a Thacher alum, was so devoted to his alma mater.

“It instilled in me a passion for learning and debate,” Dees said. “No one was assuming we didn’t have the capacity to understand complicated things.”

But she also experienced a school that, in retrospect, seemed ill-prepared to welcome girls.

Dees said she struggled academically, and later in life realized how to handle her learning difficulties. Today she is a lawyer and writer. But at Thacher, supposed concern over her academic performance led to the then-head of school, Bill Wyman, reaching his hand down and groping her backside “on more than one occasion, with alcohol under his breath.”

She remembered thinking, “Why are you doing this?”

“It was a gross feeling at the time, and I remember he did it under the guise of being concerned about my academic welfare,” she said. “It definitely had a sexual component — I was well aware of it — but it’s what you have to deal with. For better or for worse, at the time as a girl, you grew up thinking there are creepy pervy guys and they’ll try to grab you, and that’s your lot in life.”

Wyman, who led the school from 1975 to 1992, died in 2014.

The Munger Tolles report described how the school had hired outside lawyers in 1992 who found Wyman had engaged in “a pattern of offensive verbal conduct and improper touching” toward female students and staff, leading to his resignation and the naming of Mulligan as his successor. Those lawyers found 17 incidents, including one in which Wyman asked two girls to wear “slinky” and “sexy” clothes at a dinner party at his house and placed his hand on a student’s butt.

For Dees, the touching incidents were not “deeply traumatic” but were among several indignities she experienced at Thacher. She left after two years, harboring some resentment for the school.

In 2017, as the #MeToo movement gained momentum, Dees saw a social media post from Thacher that celebrated Wyman, and commented that it was thoughtless of the school to lionize a man who had groped female students.

An administrator and Mulligan contacted her. Mulligan later conveyed to her that Wyman left behind a complicated legacy and that Mulligan struggled with it for years, partly because his predecessor’s heirs had gone to Thacher, she recalled.

Dees remembered Mulligan asking her, “What would you have me do?”

She believed the question was sincere, and responded that the school had to be “willing to enter a really brave, unflinching examination.”

Dees wonders whether that time is now. She acutely understands how interconnected alums, students, parents, faculty and staff are with the alleged perpetrators in the report.

“Everyone knows everyone and the connections run deep,” she said. “If you are a victim in that environment, there’s very little room in that story for you.”

If you or someone you know needs assistance, you can reach RAINN’s sexual assault hotline at (800) 656-4673 or visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.


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