Elite Ojai boarding school’s ex-headmaster molested Thacher student, suit alleges
A former student at the Thacher School is suing the prestigious Ojai boarding school, alleging it allowed its onetime headmaster to stalk and openly molest her before expelling her when she complained.
On Wednesday, the woman, who is now 53, spoke at a news conference alongside attorney Gloria Allred and alleged that Headmaster William “Bill” Wyman groped her numerous times when she was 13 and repeatedly made sexual remarks. The behavior was so bad, the woman said, that other staff intervened in 1982 when he “got too close to her in public.”
The woman, identified as Jane Doe in the litigation, also alleged she was sexually abused by a female nurse who inserted a thermometer into her rectum during overnight visits to the infirmary.
Wyman died in 2014. But a law firm report in 2021 detailed decades of allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment against students and “boundary crossing” by faculty members. The 91-page report was commissioned by Thacher and compiled by lawyers with the Los Angeles firm Munger, Tolles & Olson.
A report has excavated open secrets and long-buried trauma at the exclusive Thacher School, concluding it failed to protect its students.
The report described outside lawyers’ findings from 1992 showing that Wyman, who served as headmaster from 1975 to 1992, had engaged in “a pattern of offensive verbal conduct and improper touching” toward female students and staff. Wyman resigned after the discovery.
In the aftermath of the 2021 report, Wyman’s name was removed from the school’s dining hall and athletic field as well as stripped from a hiking trail named for him.
Wyman’s successor’s name was also stripped from the campus last year. The Board of Trustees said in a letter to the school community that Michael Mulligan’s name would be removed because of occasions in which he “failed to appropriately demonstrate leadership and act when informed of concerns about sexual misconduct.”
Mulligan led the school from 1992 to 2018. When he retired, the school named its new 412-seat dining hall after him and his wife, Joy, a beloved teacher and administrator.
In August, the head of the school at the time, Blossom Pidduck, resigned after an extended leave of absence following the unveiling of the report. Five months earlier, Pidduck, who attended the school as a child, revealed she too was a survivor of sexual assault at Thacher.
The Thacher 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 a young Howard Hughes. It focuses on rugged, Western ideals, with its unofficial motto coming 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.”
The allegations of misconduct and inappropriate “boundary crossing” at the Thacher School date to the 1980s.
The lawsuit’s plaintiff said she arrived at Thacher in 1982 as “an outgoing girl with good grades and was looking forward to a life of horses, making new friends and escaping an unhappy home environment, which I now see made me a target for abuse.”
The woman alleges that Wyman soon began paying special attention to her, hugging her and calling her his “special girl.” That behavior quickly escalated to groping her breasts and body, the woman said.
According to the lawsuit, Wyman followed her each day from the dormitories to the stables and he “pressed his erect penis” against her. She complained to other Thacher staff but then was told she could not return to the school in 1983, she alleges.
Last year, Thacher’s Board of Trustees established a committee on student safety and well-being, directing the administration to create a task force to respond to allegations of sexual misconduct and retaining an independent expert to review the school’s sexual misconduct education and response mechanisms.
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