Elite Thacher School hit again by sex abuse allegations
The Thacher School in Ojai, Calif., is an exclusive educational enclave with an annual bill of $68,000 and a roster of illustrious alumni, from politicians to CEOs to Hollywood types, including Howard Hughes, Noah Wyle and Joely Richardson.
More recently, the institution, founded in 1889, made headlines for its high-profile #MeToo account.
In June, LA law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson released a 91-page independent report exposing decades of sexual misconduct involving professors and students. The findings divided former students, some of whom questioned the report’s independence and felt that a former principal was a scapegoat while the current administration was not subject to the same scrutiny. In light of the criticism, a second report was commissioned in July and repeatedly delayed. It never happened.
Instead, a success story from the news site Law & Crime landed late last month. It outlines allegations that the current administration covered up an alleged May 2021 assault in which a student, a relative of school founder Sherman Day Thacher, was accused of choking another student during a a sexual relationship. It is unclear when superiors learned of the alleged incident, but the student reportedly returned home before the end of the school year. And according to unnamed sources in the explosive piece, the administration approached the student in August, telling him to leave the school and, in exchange, would not report the incident to MTO investigators, and his university recommendations to Thacher would not be affected. .
The alleged assault was not reported to authorities until December 2021.
This latest development threw Thacher into damage control mode, with the school principal taking a leave of absence and presenting himself as a victim of sexual misconduct, the details of which were documented in the initial MTO report.
In a March 17 letter, the principal of Blossom Pidduck School, who attended Thacher in the early 90s, announced her departure.
“In my own healing process, I have come to understand that this kind of trauma feeds on shame and secrecy. Protecting this secret ultimately only protects those who caused harm,” she wrote, adding that it had a “tremendous impact” on her wellbeing and that of her family.
“In order to be able to continue to do the work of supporting and caring for others, I need to take time for my own healing.”
School board chairman Dan Yih called his letter “the ultimate show of strength and leadership.”
But some members of the Thacher community question the timing of his statement, adding that it only raises more concerns about the culpability of the administration and the board.
“If Ms. Pidduck is so responsive to survivors, why did she, her administration and the board not report in a timely manner – as required by law – the choking event of the ‘May sexual misconduct at the MTO or the county sheriff?’, Thacher alum and former longtime administrator and audit committee chair Philip Pillsbury told the Post.
“Based on the Law & Crime story, it appears that she and her administration engaged in a major cover-up of student wrongdoing by threatening to expose it in a second MTO report to bring the culprit student to ‘voluntarily’ withdraw from school. How does this protect the victim? How does such a cover-up deter perpetrators? Why didn’t Blossom Pidduck, as head of Thacher, immediately report this horrendous misconduct to law enforcement, as mandated by Federal and California mandatory reporting of such abuse? »
Under California state law, educators are legally required to report such cases to authorities. Those who fail to do so can be charged with a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in prison.
The Post asked the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department if they were investigating the issue.
In a voicemail, Detective Sgt. Ryan Clark of the VCSD said “the whole series of cases are currently under investigation” and that the possible failure to report the incident “is a matter we are looking into”. He added that there was a joint investigation with the Ventura County District Attorney’s office, and “we will cover that.”
(After the Law & Crime article was published, the publication added a statement from Clark, who disputed the characterization of the alleged 2021 choking incident, saying the victim “was not engaged in the sexual activity discussed in this report when the assault occurred”. )
Brent Nibecker, the supervising assistant district attorney, told the Post he was unable to comment.
Pillsbury added: “Do we as a school community have a principal and members of his administration potentially guilty of criminal misconduct by not reporting this specific incident in May until last December? These questions speak to her responsibility as headmistress of the school, not her survival.
Pidduck’s furlough is an about-face from mid-February, when she wrote in an alumni newsletter that she was delighted to host alumni for a June reunion, even citing the MTO report. But days later, the Law & Crime article was published, and sources told the Post that she left campus within 72 hours.
When The Post asked Thacher about Pidduck’s furlough and whether any members of the administration had retained an attorney in light of the Law & Crime report, the school published its letter, adding that it would not no additional statement.
In recent years, elite boarding schools have been forced to face some unsavory parts of their history. Luxurious northeast institutions such as Choate Rosemary Hall and St. Paul’s in New Hampshire have undergone similar audits for on-campus sexual abuse.
The MTO report did not implicate Michael Mulligan – whose tenure at Thacher spanned more than three decades, until his retirement in 2018, and notably served as a school principal for 25 years – with sexual misconduct. But he concluded he wasn’t vigilant enough when it came to weeding out inappropriate actors.
In one case detailed in the MTO report, a teacher was accused of repeatedly raping a 16-year-old girl in the 1980s before Mulligan was school principal.
“During the first year he also became much more violent, often hitting me, often throwing me across a room so hard that I ended up on the other side of the bed unconscious,” the victim said.
The report notes that Mulligan confronted, fired and reported abusers, but also expressed regret for his handling of some situations.
The school stripped its name from the dining hall, prompting backlash from prominent alumni and boosters, including actor Jonathan Tucker and philanthropist Bill Oberndorf. In September, the Daily Beast reported that they and other donors were withholding funds and support in light of Thacher’s actions against Mulligan. His defenders said Mulligan and his wife dedicated their lives to the boarding school and its students and were responsible for its rise to national prominence. They added that the school denied him access to its records during the investigation.
In a statement at the point of sale, the Oberndorf Foundation wrote that while it “opposes sexual abuse and harassment of any kind, we also believe, as a matter of social justice, in due process. After a After careful consideration of recent events at Thacher, we believe that Michael Mulligan has been denied this most fundamental right.
Now, this latest bombshell has raised another cloud of distrust and discord within the once close-knit community. Pillsbury, whose father and son also dated Thacher, called it “heartbreaking”.
“At Thacher, you live by the principles of ‘honor, fairness, kindness and truth.’ This board and the administration don’t live up to the creed. They won’t talk about it. They won’t won’t answer our questions,” he said, adding, “It’s not the Thacher method.