Girls school’s handling of sex allegations under fire after teacher arrest

Marlborough School in Hancock Park, where a teacher was charged with felony sex crimes involving an underage student.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Problems at one of Los Angeles’ premier private schools surfaced in June, when a former student wrote an online essay accusing a popular English teacher of inappropriate conduct.

Since then, more former students of Marlborough School have come forward with allegations about the teacher. An internal investigation found that complaints were ignored, and Headmistress Barbara Wagner announced her resignation.

On Wednesday, the teacher, Joseph Thomas Koetters, was arrested on four felony charges. Los Angeles police detectives said they continue to investigate other allegations.


The arrest comes amid debate on the Hancock Park campus about how school leaders have handled the situation.

The school says that it has improved policies and procedures to address sexual harassment and bullying complaints, including expanded training for faculty and staff, and it has set up an anonymous online reporting system.

School officials did not return calls seeking comment Wednesday. But in a statement, officials said the top priorities are the safety and welfare of students.

“Marlborough School expresses its deep sympathy for the victims of the sexual misconduct that has come to light,” the statement said.

But former board member and investor J.P. Guerin, who sent four of his daughters to Marlborough, said the problems have tarnished the school’s reputation.

One current parent, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation toward his daughter, said he is so dismayed by the way the matter has been handled that he no longer has any interest in supporting the school financially.

Koetters, 47, was released on $140,000 bail after his arrest Wednesday; he is charged with two counts each of oral copulation and penetration with a foreign object involving someone under 18, according to the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office. His arraignment had been scheduled for Thursday but was postponed. If convicted, he faces up to five years in prison.

Koetters, a Santa Monica resident, did not return a call seeking comment.

According to the charges, Koetters initiated a yearlong sexual relationship with a 16-year-old female student in 2000. She became pregnant by the teacher and later had a miscarriage, according to her attorney, David M. Ring. He said that she did not wish to comment Wednesday and that he plans to file a civil suit against Koetters and the school.

Ring said his client’s allegations are among those highlighted in a recent Vanity Fair article.

She came forward to police and the school in July, after other allegations against Koetters were published in the online magazine xoJane. The story was first reported in 2014 by BuzzFeed.

Mikaela Gilbert-Lurie described sexual advances made by the teacher that began when she was 16 and described her distress that her school had not taken her complaints seriously. In the essay, Gilbert-Lurie did not name the school or the teacher. Marlborough’s board later identified the teacher as Koetters and Marlborough as the campus.

The campus conducted an internal review after the online posting and released a summary in November, saying that Wagner hadn’t fulfilled “several crucial management and oversight responsibilities” when she failed to fully investigate Gilbert-Lurie’s complaint in 2012 and a complaint by another student in 2005.

The summary also briefly mentions the accuser in the current criminal case, saying that she contacted the school during the course of the investigation to report “that Koetters had engaged in inappropriate physical conduct toward her over a decade ago.… Neither the school nor the board was aware of Koetters improper conduct as reported by the graduate until July 2014; upon receipt of that information, the school promptly notified the Los Angeles Police department and the Department of Children and Family Services as required by law.”

The investigation concluded that Koetters had engaged in a pattern of misconduct, “including instances of improper physical contacts and communications with multiple Marlborough students … often using his position of authority to prompt improper discussions and invitations for further contact.”

He was first hired by Marlborough in 1999 and became head of the English department in 2001. He left Marlborough in June 2013 and briefly joined the faculty at Polytechnic School in Pasadena before stepping down.

Marlborough board President Christine Ewell and trustee Debra Wong Yang, who led the investigative committee, did not return calls seeking comment.

Guerin, meanwhile, who served two separate 10-year terms on the board, said he and others support Wagner and that she had spent 25 years “building what is a great institution.”

He placed some blame on the board.

“I think we all bear a little responsibility for not laying down clear-cut procedures for our headmaster to follow,” he said.