Thacher School Survivors' First-Hand Accounts Offer Glimpse Into Systemically Toxic Culture

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Thacher School Survivors’ First-Hand Accounts Offer Glimpse Into Systemically Toxic Culture

Thacher School Survivors’ First-Hand Accounts Offer Glimpse Into Systemically Toxic Culture

Jun 28, 2021

Only a few days after the loathsome Thacher School Committee Report emerged – uncovering four decades of sexual abuse, sexual misconduct, physical abuse, and abuse of power by administrators and faculty members – countless first-hand allegations from former students have come to light.

An Instagram page created by anonymous Thacher student survivors – @rpecultureatthacher (signifying ‘rape culture at Thacher’) – offers graphic accounts of wanton sexual violence. Said behavior allegedly occurred unchecked, in many cases as an open secret, for 40 years at the elite boarding school. The Instagram page indicates it was established to create a safe space for those who have experienced rape culture at Thacher.

To better understand the scope of the abuse outlined in the report, we reviewed several of the Instagram posts. Although there were dozens, we attempted to thoroughly peruse as many posts as possible, searching for varying examples that would construct a full picture for readers. Below we’ve included some of the first-hand accounts posted by survivors, hoping to provide insight into the systemic and toxic culture of abuse that reportedly occurred at Thacher.

According to the Committee Report, said abuse took place without significant repercussions of any kind being handed down by Thacher’s Board, administrators, or faculty members. While the very students whom the institution had a responsibility to protect were being knowingly abused on a repeated basis, neither the students nor the faculty accused of committing those crimes were, it appears, subjected to any form of discipline.

In many cases, Thacher’s inaction seemed to only further such unspeakable behaviors by sexual predators who doubled as students and faculty members. In one of the Instagram posts, a Thacher student contextualized the level of inaction relative to an individual sexual predator:

“The faculty are supposed [to] act as our parents. They are supposed to protect us. The administration was told countless times, by both faculty and students alike, about the harm this boy was causing. They did nothing. So many children got hurt, some permanently traumatized. We were kids. You were the adults. How can you hold students to standards that you do not uphold yourselves? And do not lie about not knowing about what was going on, or only care now because you are being called out on a public platform you cannot ignore,” the student wrote.

Below we’ve featured some additional Instagram posts from Thacher survivors, as well as some comments from concerned parents and students (both current and former), community members, and even anonymous strangers.

Some of the first-hand survivor accounts included below, it should be noted, discuss sensitive and potentially triggering topics such as rape and sexual abuse. They are being reposted in an effort to provide context into the Thacher student experience. The posts below have not been altered in any way and are provided exactly as they appear on the Instagram page.

Criticism of the Thacher Committee Report

The Special Committee Report released by the Thacher School Board of Trustees last week details accounts of rampant “sexual misconduct and harassment.” Along with the report, an apology from Thacher Board Chair, Dan Yih, was posted on the school’s website.

“We are deeply sorry,” Yih said. “As a Board, we accept responsibility and will move forward with humility and clarity to do everything we can to ensure the safety and well-being of our students. We are taking steps to support you and to implement changes to all aspects of our work to prevent any recurrence of such painful events.”

An additional letter of apology from current Thacher Head of School, Blossom Beatty Pidduck, and a “Message” from former Head of School, Michael Mulligan, also accompanied the Committee Report.

I am deeply sorry for the ways we-your School-failed you, and for the hurt and harm that failure has wrought,” Pidduck said in her letter.

“While these failures should never have been, they can now become our profound teachers, helping us to see clearly so that we can take action to create what must be, a community where all students are safe and nurtured. We have already begun the work of responding to their lessons by: dismantling barriers to and creating new avenues for reporting and seeking support in response to sexual harassment and misconduct; using experienced, trauma-informed professionals to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct; expanding education for adults and students about appropriate boundaries, signs of grooming behavior, and mandatory reporting requirements; and reimagining sex education at Thacher to better empower students to develop and sustain healthy relationships and to access diverse sources of support when faced with harmful behaviors or scenarios,” she added.

In former Head of School Michael Mulligan’s letter, he said accepting responsibility for wrongs was something he “always encouraged in students,” and that those students’ “well-being was my foremost concern.”

Mulligan said he was “sickened and heartbroken to hear” of the sexual abuse allegations. “To all of you [the Thacher students], I extend my heartfelt compassion,” Mulligan added.

Some of the posts to the Thacher survivors’ Instagram page, seemingly added by former students, took umbrage with Mulligan being given a platform to offer an apology despite the majority of the alleged sexual abuse occurring under his tenure (32 years at Thacher, with 25 of those in the position of Head of School).

“Why was Michael Mulligan’s letter included in the school’s official email preface to the report? The same report in which he is deeply implicated in a pattern of actively disregarding child sexual abuse? This elevates his voice and implicitly affirms his authority above those of the victims. This is emblematic of an ongoing failure of leadership at the school,” an anonymous user wrote on @rpecultureatthacher’s Instagram page.

A Thacher student survivor expressed similar frustrations over Mulligan’s letter:

“As a victim of sexual assault my freshman year at Thacher, this report is deeply cathartic. Mulligan’s letter? Absolutely frustrating. The irony of the school still giving him a platform for a completely underwhelming apology when page after page details entirely the opposite action and mindset, must be noted. Let’s please call it what it was and is: gaslighting. If the school truly wants to evolve and regain trust, there’s no place for his performative bullshit we all endured for years. Talk about triggering… This report is the tip of the iceberg. The current administration and Mully’s tenure must be picked apart and held accountable with the same alarm, scrutiny and criticism of Wyman’s. Perpetrators wear different masks and complicity is one of the most subversive and sinister of all,” the survivor wrote.

Through the @rpecultureatthacher Instagram page, Thacher community members also wondered why the law firm hired to conduct the investigation into the boarding school’s decades of misconduct happened to be one with a glaring conflict of interest.

“I’d like us to talk about the fact that Thacher hired Charlie Munger’s law firm to do the investigation. His grandkids went to Thacher (one was in my class and that one consistently bullied and body shamed females all four years we were there). Could they not have hired a firm with no personal connection to the school?” one of the users asked in a post.

Munger is a billionaire and former real estate attorney. In the Committee Report, survivors of Thacher sexual or physical abuse are encouraged to disclose any misconduct to Munger’s firm until September 2021. For survivors who wish to report claims after September 2021, Thacher’s website provides an email address for Grand River Solutions, a company offering, according to its website, “Higher Education and K-12 Solutions” as well as “Title IX solutions” to institutions.

Title IX, part of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, is a federal law stating, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.

Thacher Survivor Stories

Thacher Survivor Stories

While initially conducting research for this blog, the objective was to identify specific Thacher survivor stories to feature that could give the public a more precise picture of what actually went on inside the institution’s halls for so many decades. Simply reporting that “sexual abuse, physical abuse, and misconduct” occurred for years at an elite boarding school like Thacher may outrage the public, but it won’t necessarily cause anyone to take action ensuring similar crimes never reoccur.

But with individual stories of such abuse, the issue becomes personal, and the stories – although anonymous to protect the survivor – might be more likely to resonate with the reader and perhaps incite actual change at Thacher and other elite boarding schools across the country.

But the sad fact is that there are simply so many incidents – ranging from verbal abuse to in-depth, graphically detailed physical abuse – that it would be impossible to post all of them in this piece. Accordingly, we’ve attempted (with the time we had available) to provide several examples that, together, paint a clear picture of Thacher School culture.

  • 1. Rape By an Upperclassman:

“I was raped by an upperclassman boy at a Thacher party. I barely knew him, but he gave me a ride there and raped me while I was too drunk to resist and laughed while he did it. At the time, all I was focused on was surviving this experience on a day-to-day basis, not reporting it. It was only when I got back to school and started to hear stories at munch outs from other girls about him pushing boundaries and being “creepy” that it hit me that my silence might be allowing a predator to continue to assault other girls the way he did me.

Going to the police was incomprehensible… reporting it to Thacher administration felt like the most I was capable of at the time. During my conversation with the dean of students, where I told her the complete story of what had happened, she told me that there was nothing she could do about the situation because it occurred off-campus. For some strange reason she also said that she needed the names of everyone drinking at the party in order to take any action. This made no sense to me, so I did not give up any of these names.

According to her, her hands were completely tied if I was not willing to involve my parents or the police, something I did not feel capable of putting myself through at the moment. It felt like her priority was to ‘contain’ me, as if I was the problem, not the boy who raped me. After what felt like some kind of sick bartering exchange, she eventually agreed to speak with the boy personally and hint to him that the administration was ‘watching’ him and that he needed to clean up his act because it wouldn’t fly in college.

Once she had had this conversation with my rapist, she pulled me aside to tell me that the conversation seemed to have gone really well and that he had even cried in response to her vague hinting about knowing he was assaulting girls. For some reason she really wanted to emphasize to me how much he cried. I left that conversation empty with the realization that Thacher cared more about my rapist’s tears than about my well-being.

Thacher needs an independent body to investigate and prosecute cases of sexual assault amount the student body,” a former Thacher student survivor wrote.

  • 2. Toxic Male Dorm Culture:

“I am an alumna from Thacher and I felt compelled to respond to the news of sexual abuse. Blossom Beatty was my prefect my freshman year. At our very first munchout [late night ‘food chats‘] she literally told us that the male students, especially the upperclassmen, would ‘probably whip out their dicks’ or give us backrubs and how cool it would be if they paid attention to us. Before the end of my first year at Thacher she was normalizing rape culture. It is appalling to me that she is the headmaster now.

  • 3. Sexually Assaulted on a Camping Trip:

“I wish I had spoken up more back then, but there was a lot of victim blaming and gaslighting going on. I had my own experiences with male students and faculty members who were inappropriate (to put it lightly). On one camping trip I was sexually assaulted by a student and when we got back to campus he bragged about it to some other students, who then told a faculty member, and it eventually it came to my attention. I was interrogated by faculty about the incident and was told that I would be reprimanded for sexual misconduct The student who assaulted me was not punished at all. Thank you for your [Instagram] account. It is about time I told my story.”

  • 4. Inappropriate Sexual Comments from a Male Faculty Member:

“One afternoon my sophomore year, a male Senior faculty member pulled me aside during the middle of lacrosse practice and proceeded to ask me prying and inappropriate questions about the older guy I had just started to see at the time. Since the start of my time at Thacher this teacher made me feel uncomfortable, belittled, and on guard when I was around him. I vividly remember the feeling of my stomach sinking the moment he called me over during practice. I felt stunned and trapped by his interrogation. And I distinctively recall never wanting to have to talk to him while alone again.”

  • 5. Non-Consensual Sexual Touching:

“Hey ladies of CdeP’15, remember when guys in our grade would come up to us freshman year unsolicited, and grab out breasts non-consensually with their hands and say ‘subtle boob touch,’ and we would all laugh? Crazy cuz I would literally punch a guy for doing that to me now. Where was the education on empowerment and feminism (for both boys and girls) when we needed it Because that’s on the administration to teach, not on us to figure out years after we graduate.”

  • 6. Body Shaming Resulting in Emotional Trauma:

“Teacher was still on the First Class email system during my freshman year, and it allowed for private and group chats. Boys in my class (and one or two not in my class) would log onto each other’s accounts and send me harassing messages about my breasts, which were large. I tried to be ‘cool’ about it. I get ‘what teenage boys are like,’ hormones, etc., but if felt pretty constant and some of it was outright mean. I got maybe 10 messages a month for a while. Apparently me and my breasts were the topic of conversation at many munch-outs, and they told me pretty frankly what was said. I made the mistake of not wearing a bra to formal dinner once, and the boys would not stop laughing at me, to my face, whispering to each other and staring. I was pretty sheltered before Thacher and a lot of this harassment in particular got to me. They made me feel like a freak, and I made excuses for them. A few of the female adults at Thacher were openly hostile towards me, and I never understood why. It would have meant the world to have someone I could talk to, trust, ask questions about what was normal/ok.

I got a breast reduction before senior year. A major, expensive, painful surgery in part because of the harassment. The boys were pretty open about their disappointment, a lot of jokes were made, but I was absolutely treated with more respect after the surgery. I had wanted to go to this school my entire life, and I Was pretty idealistic; I really didn’t expect to be treated like that at Thacher.”

  • 8. Non-Consensual Sexual Contact

“At our senior party on the day of graduation, I was sitting with a bunch of my friends when we were joined by some others. A guy in my class started rubbing his genital area against my shoulder. I was sitting and he was standing really close to my shoulder so at first I thought it was an accident. I moved a bit to my left away from him, but he just inched closer to me and started grinding on my shoulder/arm repeatedly.”

  • 9. Inappropriate Sexual Comments by Thacher Male Faculty

“My peers who were on this trip with me likely remember this, and if not, I sure as hell never forgot. It was the first horse camping trip for a group of us freshman girls, the very first night. The trip was led by a male horse faculty [member] who was a bit older, and was known for saying… dated… things, for lack of better term. After riding into the campsite, that male faculty, with zero context, commented to me that I ‘have childbearing hips.’ I was FIFTEEN. There is NO situation in which such a comment would EVER be appropriate. I was stunned, and did not know how to react, and if I remember correctly I just left the situation and went to collect some water.

For years I joked about this, but genuinely reflecting on it I am filled with disgust and discomfort and pretend things were ok for the whole trip, and the following three years of riding, always worried about older males looking at me as I rode.”

  • 10. Repeated Sexual Assaults in Dorm Room

“My first few months at Thacher, I felt pretty shy and reserved. Although I had a lot of good friends, I felt like that quality prevented me from being open to romantic relationships, and, at the time, it seemed relationships had the power to determine your social status. As a favor, my friends started asking around to find someone that might want to hook up with me. Soon, my Shaphcat flooded with messages from guys. My initial excitement died down when I read things like, “I really like [some other young woman] but I think I need more practice. Will you hook up with me just so I can get more experience?”

Looking back, that’s so messed up. But as a 14/15-year-old young woman, I was excited to be needed in some capacity. Every night I would see random guys. Several times I was sexually violated and abused without consent, but I am still not comfortable addressing those events. I thought that it was all part of the deal. I would return to my dorm, where other girls would flaunt my “mystery lovers” and I continued to play along. I was so humiliated that I served as an object for boys to try new tricks on.

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Through my time at Thacher this continued, on and off, and I can acknowledge my complacency in it. However, where were older students and faculty to teach me that this type of behavior was not something I should settle for?

Instead, I learned I learned that [I] was undesirable and a body that was meant to be used, instead of loved. I am still struggling to feel adequate in sexual relationships. I know I am not alone in this experience, and I hope this sheds light on yet another aspect of r*pe culture at Thacher,” a survivor student wrote.

Support for Thacher Survivors and Hope for Change

Support for Thacher Survivors and Hope for Change
Among the countless Thacher survivor stories are messages of support and encouragement posted by anonymous strangers who are rightfully outraged at the details of the Committee Report.

Thank you for your immeasurable strength. I’m so sorry. We see you, hear you, believe you, and stand f***ing by you. I personally recommit myself, as I know so many others do, to hold Thacher accountable to the tenants which it failed to uphold to the devastating detriment to the health and well-being of those young minds, bodies, and spirits of those it is tasked to protect and care for,” an anonymous user wrote.

But is the Thacher scandal actually indicative of a larger trend of sexual violence and toxic culture occurring at schools across the country? Last year, the Washington Post published a story confirming findings from an Education Department study indicating that reports of sexual violence in schools rose an alarming 50% in the 2017-2018 school year (from 9,600 in 2015-2016 to nearly 15,000).

In the past year alone, we’ve published numerous stories detailing allegations and charges related to school sexual abuse:

While school sexual abuse is on the rise throughout the country, is what has happened at Thacher for 40 years a microcosm of a type of systemic sexual abuse and misconduct that is uniquely embedded into the culture of these elite educational institutions?

Our experienced attorneys can help you pursue a financial award for your sexual abuse case. Contact us online or by phone for a free consultation today.

One concerned parent wrote the following:

“I saw the article on sexual abuse at Thacher and heard about this account. Thank you. As a just graduated female student from an elite boarding school that is known as Thacher’s competitor, I beg of you to look beyond just this school.”

Thacher was ranked #12 among the 50 Most Elite Boarding Schools in America by Business Insider in 2016. Sexual abuse and misconduct at such institutions may be much more widespread than the public realizes.

In 2017, an Associated Press (AP) report uncovered sexual abuse scandals at many elite boarding schools throughout the U.S., including:

  • St. George’s School in Rhode Island: An August 2016 sexual abuse settlement provided compensation for up to 30 former students who were assaulted. Dozens of victims had come forward with stories of abuse by school employees and fellow students as far back as the 1970s (and as recently as the 2000s). According to the AP, a report by a Boston lawyer said the school became a “private hell” for dozens of students.
  • Horace Mann School in New York City: A 2015 investigation identified more than 60 former students who said they were sexually abused from the 1960s through the 1990s. A 2013 report by the Bronx District Attorney’s office cited 25 alleged victims, and as of 2017 the school announced a number of settlements with former students.
  • Solebury School in Pennsylvania: A grand jury report detailed a half-century of sexual abuse and identified nine adults who sexually abused students since the 1950s. Only one teacher was ever charged with a sex crime, however, according to the AP.

As another concerned parent noted on the @rpecultureatthacher Instagram page, a failure to change the pervasive culture of sexual violence at these elite boarding schools is unacceptable:

“We need to ask whether the school has done enough to change its culture so that these events don’t occur again. As a current parent that has closely watched the school [Thacher], I would say it has not and that is what scares me,” the user wrote.

Bombshell Report Uncovers Decades of Sexual Abuse and Misconduct Allegations at Ojai's Thacher Boarding School

Thacher Survivors and the Pursuit of Justice

For a limited period of time, California’s AB 218 law affords any survivor of childhood sexual abuse the opportunity to file a civil lawsuit against a sexual offender – whether an individual or institution – regardless of how long ago the crime occurred. AB 218 could have an immeasurable impact on the Thacher sexual abuse scandal – both in terms of the potential penalties levied against the institution (and its leaders), as well as the survivors seeking justice.

An anonymous post made to the @rpecultureatthacher Instagram page offers advice to Thacher survivors wishing to pursue justice:

“As you reflect on incidents that may have happened to you at school, and as you consider what to do now… you might think about talking to your OWN attorney BEFORE talking to the legal counsel that the school hired.”

Go See Sam