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Report details allegations of misconduct at Cate School as far back as 1960s

A recent investigative report details accounts of sexual misconduct at the Cate School in Carpinteria.
A recent investigative report details accounts of sexual misconduct at the Cate School in Carpinteria.
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More than a year after the private Cate School in Carpinteria commissioned an internal investigation into accounts of faculty sexual misconduct against students, a 35-page report released earlier this month details accounts of inappropriate behavior involving 17 former faculty members and stretching back to the 1960s.

The report from Oppenheimer Investigations Group LLP, which was shared with the Cate community on Dec. 15, named seven individuals, including Da’Jon James — a teacher who was fired in 2020 following allegations of misconduct and was later arrested in Colorado over allegations at a different private school. The report also describes allegations against 10 unidentified individuals.

“In a close community such as ours, the bonds created between people on the Mesa are meant to provide comfort and nurture growth, not to inflict trauma. This was where we failed,” board of trustees President Lisa Browne Stanson and Chair Wyatt Gruber wrote in a letter to the Cate community of students, alumni and parents. “We honor the survivors for the courage they have shown in coming forward to recount their painful experiences, and we thank those witnesses who joined them in helping us to understand the full nature of what occurred.”

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Cate’s report comes months after the elite Thacher School in Ojai released an extraordinary 91-page report that detailed sexual misconduct allegations against faculty and revealed open secrets and long-buried trauma at a boarding school that, like Cate, has attracted some of the wealthiest families in the country.

Cate is one of the most prestigious boarding schools in the country. Founded in 1910, the school has a $111-million endowment and a boarding tuition of $68,150. The school, which sits on a 150-acre campus and is minutes away from Santa Barbara, includes an alumni roster of philanthropists, filmmakers and entrepreneurs and business leaders, such as former chairman of HSBC Holdings John Bond. Musician David Crosby and former Los Angeles Times publisher Otis Chandler also attended briefly.

Anger grows at two private schools in Carpinteria and Boulder as investigations into allegations of sexual misconduct by a teacher toward students continue.

The report describes several instances of sexual relations between various teachers and underage students that includes kissing, touching, grooming of students while in school who became sexual partners after graduation and an allegation of molestation in the 1960s. Most of the instances took place at the elite boarding school — a community where teachers often live on campus and are easily accessible to students. The school is among more than 85 schools with boarding facilities in California.

The Oppenheimer investigation, which was announced in October 2020, is separate from one launched in April by the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office after a mandated reporter — a person legally required to report suspicions of child abuse to authorities — came forward with allegations regarding James, the former director of vocal music.

Head of School Ben Williams and Assistant Head of School Jay Dorion did not return calls or emails seeking comment, and Cate spokeswoman Avani Patel Shah said the school had no further comment. The school is on winter break from Dec. 18 until Jan. 9.

In late June, one week after Thacher released its report, sheriff’s detectives and investigators from the Santa Barbara County district attorney’s office served search warrants at the Cate campus to gather potential evidence of misconduct.

Among the findings, the report affirmed that the Cate School administration was aware of James’ problematic behavior for months before he was terminated.

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

The school was first notified about James’ inappropriate behavior in 2019 — roughly five months before he was terminated. Administrators were aware of allegations against him that included hugging female students, having a student sit on his lap and making inappropriate comments about students’ appearances and personal revelations about his dating life. Before his termination, James was counseled for his behavior by Assistant Head of School Dorion.

“In the moment, I felt we were trying to be very responsive to their concerns, and to a young man who seemed like he was really trying,” Dorion said in the report.

James was terminated in February 2020 after a student told administrators that in October, James had placed his hand on her thigh while watching a movie. The administration filed a report with Child Protective Services, but according to the Oppenheimer report, CPS believed the account “did not rise to the level of being ‘reportable.’”

Another finding revealed that Cate allowed a former teacher to continue living on the boarding school’s campus because his wife was employed by Cate, despite allegations that he had kissed and touched “intimate body parts” of a student. Head of School Williams became aware of those allegations in 2012, the report said, and an investigation substantiated the prior student’s claims. But the former employee, who stopped teaching in 2012, remained on campus through the spring of 2021.

The report concludes that Williams’ permission to allow the former employee to continue living on campus failed to consider the possibility that students were aware of the former teacher’s misconduct and could interpret his residence as “indicative of the school condoning his actions.”

It comes amid the school’s own internal investigation into potential abuse dating back decades

Alumni and students have expressed disappointment in the report itself, citing its condensed findings in comparison with Thacher’s 91-page investigation, and with the board’s response. In posts shared by the “Me Too Cate” Instagram account, a platform that launched in June and has shared allegations of misconduct, and and in emails sent to the board of trustees and shared with The Times, members of the community said they were disappointed in the school’s handling of the allegations and delay in launching an investigation sooner.

“You have a regrettable debacle on your hands,” alumna Wendy Ward Hoffer said in an email to the board. “Survivors, parents and other alumni are enraged. I am personally insulted. This report of Cate faculty sexual abuse is late, lopsided and lacking.”

Ward Hoffer, who graduated in the class of 1987, previously told The Times that she came forward to school officials with allegations of misconduct in 2019. She was disappointed in the report, saying in her email to the board that it spent more time “justifying the behavior of a complicit faculty member” and glossed over alleged abuse, including her own experience.

In their letter, Brown and Gruber commended Williams and reiterated their support for his leadership — a response that has also contributed to frustration among students and alums who believe the head of school should be held accountable for his delay in action.

The board also said that corrective actions will include an increase to faculty education around “recognizing signs of grooming behavior and boundary-crossing” and increasing student awareness around sexual assault reporting procedures. And the seven named perpetrators will be permanently banned from campus.

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 at rainn.org.


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