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Elite Thacher School hit again by sexual abuse allegations

The Thacher School in Ojai, California is an exclusive educational enclave with an annual bill of $68,000 and a roster of illustrious alumni ranging from politicians to CEOs to Hollywood types including Howard Hughes, Noah Wyle and Joely Richardson.

More recently, the institution, founded in 1889, has made headlines with its high-profile #MeToo billing.

In June, LA law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson released an independent 91-page report exposing decades of sexual misconduct by faculty and students. The findings divided alumni, some of whom questioned the report’s independence and felt that a former headmaster was being made a scapegoat while the current administration was not subjected to the same scrutiny. In the face of criticism, a second report was commissioned in July and repeatedly delayed. It never arrived.

Instead, a blockbuster story from news site Law & Crime landed late last month. It outlines claims that the current government has covered up an alleged May 2021 attack in which a student, a relative of school founder Sherman Day Thacher, was reportedly accused of choking another student during sex. It is unclear when higher authorities learned of the alleged incident, but the student reportedly went home before the end of the school year. And according to unnamed sources in the explosive piece, the administration reportedly reached out to the student in August to tell him to leave school and in return would not report the incident to MTO investigators, nor would his college Thacher’s recommendations may be affected.

Elite Thacher School in Ojai, California costs $65,000 a year.
Elite Thacher School in Ojai, California costs $67,940 per year.
Credit: thethacherschool/Instagr

The alleged attack was not reported to authorities until December 2021.

This latest development has put Thacher into damage control mode, with the principal being placed on leave – and coming forward as a victim of sexual misconduct by a faculty member while she was a student at the school, whose events were documented in the first MTO report.

In a March 17 letter, principal Blossom Pidduck, who attended Thacher in the early 1990s, announced her departure.

In my own healing process, I have come to understand that trauma of this type feeds on shame and secrecy. Protecting this secret ultimately only protects those who caused the harm,” she wrote, adding that it has had a “huge impact” on the well-being of her and her family.

“In order to continue doing the work of supporting and caring for others, I need to make some time for my own healing.”

Headmistress Blossom Pidduck has taken a leave of absence
Headmistress Blossom Pidduck has taken a leave of absence.

School board chairwoman Dan Yih called her letter the “ultimate show of strength and leadership.”

But some in the Thacher community question the timing of her testimony, adding that it only raises further concerns about the guilt of both the administration and the board of trustees.

“If Ms. Pidduck is so attuned to survivors, why didn’t she, her administration and board of directors timely – as required by law – report the May sexual misconduct choking incident to MTO or the county sheriff?” Thacher alum and former longtime trustee and Audit Committee Chair Philip Pillsbury told The Post.

“It is clear from the Law & Crime story that she and her administration were involved in a major cover-up of student-on-student misconduct by threatening to expose it in a second MTO report in order to get the offending student to “voluntarily” withdraw from the school. How does that protect the victim? How does such a cover-up deter perpetrators? As director of Thacher, why didn’t Blossom Pidduck immediately report this horrific misconduct to law enforcement as required by both federal and California reporting obligations of such abuse?”

Under California state law, educators are required by law to report such incidents to the authorities. Anyone who fails to do so can be charged with an offense punishable by six months’ imprisonment.

The Post asked the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department if they were investigating the issue.

Actor Noah Wyle is one of the school's famous alumni and is pictured with former headmaster Michael Mulligan.  Wyle is not involved in the allegations.
Actor Noah Wyle is one of the school’s famous alumni and is pictured with former headmaster Michael Mulligan. Wyle is not involved in the allegations.
Getty Images

In a voicemail, VCSD’s Detective Sgt. Ryan Clark said that “the entire suite of cases is currently under investigation” and a possible failure to report the incident “is an issue we are looking at.” He added that there is a joint investigation with the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office and “we will be addressing this issue.”

(After the Law & Crime story ran, the publication included a statement from Clark, who disputed the characterization of the alleged 2021 choking incident, saying the victim “did not engage in the sexual activity alluded to in that report , when the attack took place.”)

Brent Nibecker, the lead assistant district attorney, told the Post he could not comment.

Pillsbury added: “As a school community, do we now have a Headmaster and members of her administration who may have committed criminal misconduct by only reporting this particular May incident as recently as last December? These questions speak to her responsibility as a principal, not her survival.”

Pidduck’s vacation is a reversal since mid-February, when she wrote in an alumni newsletter that she was excited to welcome back former students for a reunion in June, even citing the MTO report. But days later, the Law & Crime article was published, and sources told the Post she left campus within 72 hours.

When The Post asked Thacher about Pidduck’s leave and whether any members of the administration had legal counsel in light of the Law & Crime report, the school released its letter, adding that it would not comment further.

In recent years, elite boarding schools have been forced to confront unsavory bits of their history. Ritzy Northeast institutes such as Choate Rosemary Hall and St. Paul’s in New Hampshire have been subject to similar audits for on-campus sexual abuse.

Former Headmaster Michael Mulligan's name was removed from the dining room
Michael Mulligan’s name has been removed from the dining room.

The MTO report did not implicate Michael Mulligan – whose tenure at Thacher spanned over three decades until his retirement in 2018, including his 25-year tenure as principal – in sexual misconduct. But it concluded that he wasn’t vigilant enough when it came to rooting 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.

“During junior year, he also became a lot more violent, often hitting me and often throwing me across a room so hard I landed unconscious on the other side of the bed,” the victim said.

The report found that Mulligan confronted, fired and reported abusers, but also expressed regret for his handling of some situations.

The school removed his 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 she and other donors withheld funds and support in light of Thacher’s actions against Mulligan. His defense attorneys said Mulligan and his wife dedicated their lives to the boarding school and its students and were behind its rise to national prominence. They added that the school denied him access to his records during the investigation.

In a statement to the outlet, the Oberndorf Foundation wrote that while it “opposes sexual abuse and harassment of any kind, it also believes in due process for reasons of social justice.” After a careful review of recent events at Thacher, we believe Michael Mulligan has been denied this most basic of rights.”

Now this latest bombshell has fueled another cloud of distrust and discord in the once tight-knit community. Pillsbury, whose father and son were also with Thacher, called it “heartbreaking”.

“At Thacher, you live by the principles of ‘Honour, Fairness, Kindness and Truth.’ This board and the administration do not live up to the credo. You won’t talk about it. They won’t answer our questions,” he said, adding, “That’s not Thacher’s way.”

https://nypost.com/2022/03/29/elite-thacher-school-is-hit-again-with-sexual-abuse-allegations/ Elite Thacher School hit again by sexual abuse allegations

JACLYN DIAZ

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