Decades of abuse uncovered but unpunished at exclusive California private school
Why no one has been or likely will be punished after a report revealed a long history of predatory grooming and sexual misconduct involving dozens of girls.
When a scathing report uncovered decades of sexual misconduct at an exclusive private school in Southern California, survivors and community members thought justice would soon follow.
Police identified nearly 100 cases of misconduct at The Thacher School in Ojai with allegations ranging from pervasive sexual harassment to rape, and those accused include teachers, coaches and the highest authority at the school.
But since the report was issued a year and a half ago, no one has faced any criminal consequences, and it's unlikely they ever will.
None of the accused still works at Thacher and a representative says the boarding school has made the changes necessary to prevent a culture of abuse and secrecy.
Survivors are left wishing more could be done.
'There was no escape'
The misconduct outlined in last year's report first came to light on several social media accounts in 2020, which prompted Thacher's board of trustees to hire a law firm to conduct an independent investigation.
After months of interviewing more than 120 former students, parents, faculty, staff and trustees, the school's law firm issued a lengthy report that outlined what it deemed credible allegations of misconduct against six former teachers and administrators.
The allegations outlined in the report range from the 1980s through the 2010s. Additional cases that emerged following the report date as far back as the 1960s at the school, which has an enrollment of about 260 students. Tuition runs over $60,000 a year.
One survivor said she was just 13 years old in 1982 when she arrived at Thacher, where students stay in dorms throughout the academic year.
"Within weeks of my arrival, I garnered the special attention of the school's headmaster," the woman said at an October news conference announcing that she was suing the school.
"He would put his arms around me, hug me and call me his 'special girl,'" she said. "This unwanted attention quickly escalated with increased touching and eventually leading to groping of my breasts and body. He also had a pattern of stalking me when I made my way from my dorm to the horse stables, which was very unsettling and frightening to me."
When she complained to faculty about the behavior of the headmaster, Bill Wyman, she said they told her that he was just being “friendly” or “grandfatherly,” even though those same staff members "would often pull him off of me when he touched me inappropriately or got too close in public."
The woman, now 53, said the abuse started when she was a freshman and continued throughout her years at the school as her grades declined. She eventually left Thacher and finished high school elsewhere.
Wyman's behavior impacted many girls during his tenure between 1975 and 1992, according to the report. Wyman resigned in 1992, when a group of faculty and students complained about his behavior to a board trustee, prompting an investigation by an attorney that didn't become public until nearly 30 years later when last year's report was released.
The school's investigation found that Wyman had a long history of improper touching and offensive conduct, detailing 17 separate incidents that included asking students to wear sexy clothes to be waitresses at a dinner party at his house, passing notes to another student as her "secret admirer," and touching multiple students' bottoms.
"Several faculty members had tried to talk to Wyman about his behavior, but without success," the investigation found. His "inability to permanently reform his behavior leaves those who have spoken up feeling frustrated, vulnerable, and in some cases, emotionally distressed."
Wyman died in 2014. In a letter he wrote to the board chair in 1992, he characterized the student allegations as "a series of stories – collected over some years – that could be called sexist, seriously so in some cases."
"They do not seem to me, on the other hand, actions that could be called sexually harassing," he continued. "The intention was to make these young people feel better about themselves, not to threaten them or anyone else."
On top of his own misconduct, the report found that Wyman turned a blind eye to that of others on campus, including multiple alleged rapes of a 16-year-old student by her English teacher in the late 1980s.
The girl's mother told investigators that Wyman pressured her not to pursue a criminal case against the teacher and conditioned her return to Thacher on an agreement not to sue the school or the teacher, "or make a fuss."
"It was a horrible, scary, hopeless time," the girl wrote in an unsent letter to the school's board, according to the report. "For me, there was no escape."
The Ventura County Sheriff's Office began its criminal investigation soon after the report's release, with six investigators eventually identifying nearly 100 cases of misconduct.
So far, about 70 have been closed largely because of California's statute of limitations for many sex crimes.
Although the statute was eliminated in 2016 by then-Gov. Jerry Brown, it was not applied retroactively. That means that any allegations of sexual abuse before 2017 are still under the statute of limitations, which varies depending on specific charges.
Of the roughly 25 pending cases linked to the Thacher investigation, most are quite old and also likely to be barred from prosecution, according to the sheriff's and county attorney's offices.
"It can be frustrating when our hands are tied in regard to the statute of limitations," said Sgt. Ryan Clark, who is in charge of the criminal investigation.
But even if no one is prosecuted, it's still important to interview every single survivor, both to connect them with victim services and to acknowledge what they've been through, Clark said.
"What's really important for survivors of sexual abuse is to have their voice heard and to take their allegations seriously, and part of that is documenting what transpired," he said. "That helps some people get closure for what transpired even though on the legal end, we can't really help a lot of them, holding these people accountable."
A different avenue of justice opened up in 2020 for survivors of abuse at Thacher when Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law allowing civil claims in such cases to be filed for the next three years – a deadline that is fast approaching.
Last month, high-profile attorney Gloria Allred announced that she was representing one victim and that she had filed a lawsuit against The Thacher School accusing the institution of negligence.
The lawsuit seeks to hold the school "accountable for its repeated failure to protect her from known sexual predators while she was a minor student in 1982 to 1984."
Thacher spokeswoman Carly Rodriguez declined to comment on the civil litigation or to provide any school officials for an interview. Rodriguez said in a statement that the institution has shown its commitment to the safety of its students by commissioning the investigation, making it public and cooperating with law enforcement.
She said the school also established a committee dedicated to student safety, which has been working with the administration to improve protocols for preventing misconduct and responding to reports of misconduct, updating and expanding the reporting process, and providing training for employees, among others.
The school has gotten better about reporting any possible crimes to law enforcement, Clark said, though his office could not immediately provide statistics on how many reports have been filed since last year.
Last month, prosecutors announced that a charge had been filed against a student of the school stemming from an incident in May 2021 but because the case involves juveniles, few details have been released.
Amid the investigation, the most recent headmaster of the school resigned in August without explaining why. The headmaster, Blossom Pidduck, took a leave of absence in the immediate wake of the report, saying she needed time to heal from her own sexual trauma suffered at the school when Pidduck was a student in the early 1990s.
Although no one is likely to face criminal charges, civil litigation can be a very powerful tool for victims, said Allred, who has represented accusers of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, R. Kelly and Donald Trump.
Unlike criminal prosecution, survivors who file civil lawsuits are in the driver's seat.
"Civil actions are extremely important because they are very empowering," Allred said. "It's very important to be able to have a victim know that she has control. Control is something she lost when she was victimized."
Allred has been an advocate for eliminating nationwide the statutes of limitations for victims of childhood sex abuse, something several states have done or are considering. Allred pointed out there are no such statutes for many lesser crimes, like embezzlement of public funds in California.
"I would think that a child's body is at least as, and certainly more important than, the embezzlement of public funds," she said. "Why would a legislature do this?"
As for Allred's client, she said in a statement that she will be disappointed if no criminal charges result from the investigation.
"It doesn’t seem right that responsible parties can hide behind an arbitrary time period (the statute of limitations) to shield themselves from facing consequences for their actions," she said. "But I am grateful that California amended its laws to allow me to at least pursue a case civilly so I can seek to hold The Thacher School responsible for failing to protect me."
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