PAINFUL EDUCATION | Multiple reports of sexual abuse come to light at The Thacher School – VC Reporter

 

by Kimberly Rivers

[email protected]

EDITORIAL NOTE: The following report contains sensitive content that may be disturbing for some readers.

It’s no surprise that the boarding school environment is particularly ripe for sexually inappropriate situations between adults and minors. When a child is living at a school away from parents, it is accepted and even desired that close relationships will form between teachers and students. That trusted bond is valuable. 

But when that trust is broken, by adults in a position of power or authority over vulnerable children or teens, the emotional and psychological impacts can send shockwaves through families for a lifetime. 

“You cannot calculate the damage done when this trust is broken. There is such a power imbalance, and that sense of betrayal,” said “Mary Sullivan,” who asked that her real name not be used at the request of her daughter, “Valerie Michaelson.” Sullivan learned a year ago that Michaelson, a graduate of Thacher School, Class of 2000, experienced sexual abuse and assault at the hands of a trusted teacher. 

Michaelson, along with other Thacher students, came forward last year to report events that took place about 20 years ago. Their experiences, along with some responses from school administrators and those accused, are detailed in a 91-page report (1), which was released by the school earlier this month. 

The report follows an investigation prompted by reports received by the school of sexual assault, abuse and rape, including statements made on several Instagram accounts that went live last summer. 

JUSTICE CENTER OPEN FOR SEXUAL MISCONDUCT VICTIMS |  The office of the Ventura County District Attorney has opened the Ventura County Family Justice Center to victims and their families of the alleged sexual misconduct — including assault, abuse and rape — related to the The Thacher School in Ojai.  Services available are free and confidential and victims can receive help whether or not they have filed a report with law enforcement.  Victims can be referred to the California Victim Compensation Board, receive emergency assistance and mental health services.  The Ventura County Family Justice Center,  3170 Loma Vista Road, Ventura Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. p.m. Requests for services and information are available in person, by telephone at 805-652-7655, by email at [email protected] or by text at 805-947-7981. In addition, Erik Nasarenko, the Ventura County District Attorney, has instructed prosecutors with his office to assist the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office investigation and “to pursue appropriate prosecutions.” Nasarenko encourages anyone with information related to allegations of sexual assault occurring at The Thacher School to contact Sergeant Hector Macias of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office at 805-384-4730.

Michaelson declined to be interviewed at this time for this story, although she gave her mother permission to talk with the Ventura County Reporter. 

The report

The community of The Thacher School in Ojai has been rocked by the report detailing multiple first-hand accounts and supporting witness reports of events that range from inappropriate relationships and touching between faculty and students to sexual abuse, assault and rape. 

Four faculty members are named in the report regarding “sexual misconduct”: Timothy Regan, John Friborg, Willard “Bill” Wyman II, and Derick Perry. The report also names two teachers, Rod “Jake” Jacobsen and Dana Vancisin, who were allegedly involved in a “failure to maintain appropriate boundaries with students and non-sexual touching that made students uncomfortable.” 

The investigation was conducted and the report prepared by the Los Angeles-based law firm of Munger, Tolles and Olson (MTO). According to that report, Thacher’s board of trustees met in the summer of 2020 in response to reports of “sexual misconduct” among staff and faculty. In August of 2020, the current chair of the board, Daniel Yih, informed Thacher students, parents and alumni about the active investigation by MTO and the creation of a hotline for anyone with relevant information to provide information. The identity of callers would be kept confidential. 

In the report MTO states that the investigation was independent and that the two attorneys conducting the investigation and creating the report have never represented Thacher and will not represent the school in the future. According to the report, over 120 people were interviewed. 

According to the transcript of a June 22 phone call hosted by Thacher School, posted online and linked through the Instagram account @rpecultureatthacher, Yih states the report was made public at the recommendation of the attorneys. 

Thacher officials declined to be interviewed for this story, but a spokesperson agreed to respond to submitted questions. Those responses all referred back to the report, or letters produced by school officials on the website. 

The report has lit a spark within the Thacher community, with demands that the school reform its culture. It’s a fire that may spread to other private school communities. 

Summary of those named

The hard truth The Thacher School is now faced with is that sexual abuse has occured on its grounds and under the eye of its administrators. The stories of those named in the report describe not only blatant and horrendously inappropriate and illegal activity on the part of adults trusted with the care of minor students, but also a pattern of looking the other way when concerns, complaints and cries for help are raised in order to prevent controversy. 

Rod “Jake” Jacobsen:
Allegations regarding Jacobsen are limited to inappropriate touching, such as back massages, and do not include touching of “erogenous zones” of female students. 

Jacobsen began working at Thacher in 1991 and according to the report was forced to retire in June of 2020, when Blossom Pidduck, current head of school, and Jeff Hooper, assistant head, met with Jacobsen about student complaints that included unwanted shoulder rubbing, him placing his hands on the backs of female students, walking through the girls dorms while they were showering and general physical closeness and touching that made students feel uncomfortable. One student who witnessed the behavior called it a “weird intimacy.” 

According to the report, the school gave Jacobsen a fond farewell for his retirement and there was no mention to the school community of his reason for leaving. 

Dana Vancisin:
Vancisin, a female faculty member, received three warnings about a relationship with a senior boy and was told to not be alone with him. She and the boy reported that they never engaged in any physical relationship while he was a student. After three warnings, she continued to spend time alone with the boy. After he graduated she was promoted and began a “romantic relationship” with the student. 

According to the MTO report, Vancisin left Thacher in 2020 for reasons unrelated to these issues.

Timothy Regan
Regan began teaching at Thacher in the fall of 1985. At that time, Michael Mulligan was assistant headmaster and Willard “Bill” Wyman was head of school. 

Regan resigned in the late 1980s after what school officials called an “inappropriate” relationship that included multiple instances of rape of a 16-year-old student, detailed in the MTO report.

The student’s first-hand reports to the MTO investigators tell how Regan kissed her and touched her without her consent when she was 15, then began raping her when she was 16. In her account, she also said that Regan continued raping her multiple times a week during her sophomore and junior years. 

“During Junior year he also became much more violent, often hitting me, once throwing me across a room so hard that I ended up on the other side of the bed unconscious,” states the MTO report from her account. 

In an unsent letter she wrote after the incidents, she said, “It was a horrible, scary, hopeless time . . . . for me there was no escape.” 

Investigators could not find any records that indicated school officials reported Regan to law enforcement. Mulligan told investigators it was another administrator’s responsibility to report it. But no one from school staff ever followed up to ensure it had been reported. 

According to police records, however, the student’s psychologist ****name?*** reported the complaints to police at that time. The Ventura County Sheriff’s Office did contact the student, but without a parent’s consent or involvement. When questioned by police, the student said the relationship was consensual. Records indicated Regan was not questioned. The case was “cleared” and reports obtained by the MTO investigation show the VCSO checked a box labeled “consensual participation” under the heading “Victim’s Activity at the time of offense” on the police record form. 

The day that Regan was ultimately confronted by school officials, the student was asked to stay the night with Mulligan’s family in their home on campus because Regan might “kidnap” her. She said she stayed in a room there, alone and “with poetry.” No one spoke to her or offered her support.

Regan continued to contact the student after he resigned and left campus. 

Reviewing the police report for the first time in 2020, the MTO report notes that the former student expressed “shock and distress” at seeing the statements she made being “consistent with the lies that Regan had coached her to tell at the time – framing their relationship as a love affair rather than one of rape and abuse.”

The unsent letter she wrote stated, “Adults need to recognize that because of the differences in power and role between adults and students any type of sexual behavior toward young people creates in them a tremendous conflict, embarrassment and often silence.” 

Her mother told MTO investigators that Wyman “pressured her not to pursue a criminal case against Regan and conditioned [her daughter’s] return to Thacher on an agreement not ‘to sue the School or Regan or make a fuss.’”

Mulligan later allowed Regan back onto campus for another student’s diploma ceremony. 

John Friborg
Friborg came to Thacher in the fall of 1987. In 1988 he was coaching both the girls and boys varsity soccer teams and served as director of college counseling. He resigned in July 1997. 

Prior to coming to Thacher, Friborg worked at a boarding school in Massachusetts with Michael Mulligan, who was aware that Friborg had been forced to resign from that school as a result of an inappropriate relationship with a female student. 

Wyman, in the role of headmaster at Thacher, interviewed Friborg about the inappropriate relationship, which Friborg acknowledged. Friborg was hired anyway. 

Mulligan reported to MTO investigators that he did not object to Friborg’s hiring and “supported” him coming to Thacher because “he knew that Friborg was a great soccer coach and it was ‘inconceivable’ to him that Friborg would make the same mistake at Thacher that he had made before.” 

But he did. The misconduct reported lasted for multiple years and according to first-hand accounts “ranged from grooming to giving students massages to sexual touching.” He also made  “unwanted sexual advances” toward former students at the five-year reunions. 

Friborg worked at two other schools after Thacher. In a letter to investigators, Friborg stated he regrets his “transgression” and feels “deep shame and regret . . . I have been very happily married for over 22 years, have a daughter in college, and live now in a quiet, simple retirement where the garden or a walk is generally the most exciting part of my days. That is enough.”

Willard “Bill” Wyman II
Willard “Bill” Wyman II served Thacher as headmaster from 1975 to 1992. When he resigned in 1992 it was amid controversy related to his sexual harassment of students and faculty. 

In 1992 the school retained outside counsel to investigate complaints about Wyman. That report revealed “a pattern of offensive verbal conduct and improper touching.” It was widely known that he had a history of telling “extremely offensive sex jokes” to faculty, commenting on female faculty members’ bodies (such as ‘I like your boobs’), and often touched adult women inappropriately.”

Seventeen different incidents were reported, including Wyman deliberately dropping a napkin on the floor at a school dinner and asking “a female student to pick it up and ‘put it on my lap.’” In another incident, he asked two students to be waitresses at a dinner party for students at his home and told them to dress in “slinky” or “sexy” outfits. 

In a letter to the board of the school in 1992, Wyman wrote that his behavior was not sexual harassment but was “to make these young people feel better about themselves, not to threaten them or anyone else.”

Wyman was named Headmaster Emeritus the year he resigned, which entitled him to receive his full salary and benefits, and live on campus until he reached retirement age at 65. When he died in 2014, he was honored at a memorial service on campus.

Mulligan, who became head of school in 1993 following Wyman’s resignation, told investigators he was not aware of the report or events of 1992. He and a board member both called Wyman “old school.” 

Derick Perry
Perry is a Thacher graduate, class of 1983. He returned to the school in 1995 as a teacher. He taught English, was dorm head and coached cross country, track and field and girls basketball. In 2011 he stopped teaching and moved to a role with less student contact out of the Alumni and Development Office as director of Annual Giving and Special Gifts. 

Perry is Valerie Michaelson’s abuser. 

Perry was allowed to resign in early June 2021 after being confronted with the Michaelson’s account that he had groomed her for sexual abuse. 

Allegations come out amidst shutdown

“I was aware of the school all my life,” said Sullivan, Michaelson’s mother. She had not attended the school, as it was not admitting female students at that time, but some of her male family members were graduates. 

When it came time for her daughter to choose a high school, Thacher was an option.

“It sounded like the best of both worlds — its academic rigour and the outdoor program,” said Sullivan. She saw the small environment as the perfect place to foster “great relationships between students and teachers.” The family thought their independent daughter would thrive at the school. 

“When she chose Thacher I was thrilled,” Sullivan recalled. “The school met my expectations and hopes for her.” 

She was unaware of any negative experiences her daughter had at Thacher until the spring of 2020. 

When the revelations of Michaelson’s abuse were made clear early last year, Sullivan wanted to inform the current head of school, Blossom Pidduck, immediately, face to face, “So that it didn’t happen to any other girls.” 

She knew Perry was still at Thacher.  Sullivan planned to drive to Thacher and meet with Pidduck. But then the state was shut down due to the pandemic. 

The lockdown lasted longer than expected and a face-to-face meeting wasn’t possible. When Thacher informed the school community about the investigation and the reporting hotline, Michaelson decided to come forward and report her experience. They were initially told the report would be released in February, and were disappointed in the delay to a June release. Sullivan saw it as a way to let current staff members leave quietly at the end of the year.

Michaelson’s experiences with Perry were not unique. The report details numerous accounts of abuse by the four named faculty members and as well as the failure of administrators to take action to protect students when they became aware of the allegations. 

Years of grooming, abuse

After learning about what happened to her daughter at Thacher, Sullivan began gathering information. “I was trying to learn more about abuse of children by adults and I came to understand why they don’t speak up at the time, even though they know something may not be right.” 

Sexual abuse is defined as “whenever one person dominates and exploits another by means of sexual activity or suggestion.” (2) The psychological impacts of abuse experienced during childhood may sometimes take many years to fully manifest. When the abuse is inflicted by a trusted adult, the victim may view the abuse as their fault. This often leads to failure to report or, if confronted, a likelihood of denial. (3)

Those studying sexual abuse of children also see it as a basic violation of human rights, taking away the chance for that child to have sexual experiences at an appropriate time “within their control and choice.” (2) It’s important to note that sexual abuse during childhood can “hinder normal social growth and be a cause of many other psychological problems.” (Maltz, 2002). 

As of this year, the California Penal Code allows charges to be filed against those committing sexual assault against a child (a minor under 18 years of age) until the victim’s 40th birthday. In California any sexual activity between a person over 18 and a minor is illegal.  

“I’m glad the statute of limitations has been increased,” said Sullivan. “When a child is being victimized, it takes some years of being an adult to recognize you were a victim.” Considering the environment at Thacher today, Sullivan said it “is ripe for grooming. The close knit nature of the community, living together.” Many of the students are homesick and are vulnerable. 

The MTO report details Michaelson’s account and that of others who felt Perry’s actions crossed the line of what was appropriate for a student-teacher interaction. Their descriptions closely align with the definitions and tactics of a sexual predator grooming a victim. 

Grooming is described as “manipulative behaviors that [an] abuser uses to gain access to a potential victim, coerce them to agree to the abuse, and reduce the risk of being caught.” (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network – RAINN). Tactics of grooming can include efforts to make the victim feel special, isolate them and build trust along with desensitization to sexualization through touch and talking about sexual topics.The process of a sexual predator grooming a victim can span over a long period of time. 

While the sexual misconduct occurred after graduation in this instance, the MTO report states that clear evidence of grooming by Perry took place starting in Michaelson’s sophomore year. 

It began with Perry spending all free periods talking with Michaelson. He would press “for details on her personal and romantic life, and advised her on romantic relationships with other students.” She said the relationship felt like a parent-child relationship and that he called himself her “surrogate dad” and described her as “a daughter.”

Perry was the only adult on a camping trip during her senior year and asked her to walk at the back of the group with him. He said to her that she “looked like a hand holder,” and then took her hand and “held it while they walked.” That night she felt uncomfortable when he put his sleeping bag next to hers. On the bus ride back he asked her to sit next to him. His attention made her feel uncomfortable. 

After graduation, Perry sent her emails asking about her “sexual fantasies and experiences” and asked about her “deepest, darkest secret.” She didn’t understand what he was asking and he “explained that he wanted to hear about her sexual fantasies.” He sent her emails describing “his own sexual fantasies and included explicit discussion of orgasms and masturbation.” These types of emails became more sexually explicit and were sent “under the guise of mentoring her.”

In the summer after her freshman year at college, when she was 19 years old, Michaelson said she went to dinner with Perry and several other Thacher students. Perry “gave her a substantial amount of alcohol.” She had never drank before and became intoxicated. Later that evening they were at the home where she was living for the summer. 

An excerpt from the MTO report:

Perry pulled her onto his lap while he was sitting on a sofa and reached up her shirt to touch her breasts, after which she does not remember what happened because she blacked out. She recalled telling Perry that what they were doing was not okay . . . She told us that she knows that no sexual intercourse took place but that Perry slept next to her that night. Student A said that, when she asked Perry the next day about what happened, Perry told her, “I just love you” and explained that he had simply been “loving” her.

In 2018 she told her friend and former roommate about what happened at that time and how she came to believe the relationship Perry developed with her had been grooming all along. 

Investigators reviewed emails she sent to friends in 2018 in which she stated, “And the grooming went on for two years before he plied me with alcohol and got under my clothes. I’ve been sick to my stomach for the past 4 weeks . . . .He was my coach, and my English teacher, and my surrogate father, and called himself that. Until he wasn’t. I’m sure he’s proud of himself for waiting until I graduated, but it really just shows how long the grooming went on. I’m mad now, and this is the first time I’ve ever been mad . . . I considered us to have had a relationship. It was not. It was abuse.”

When investigators confronted Perry, he identified her by name and “denied ever engaging in grooming behavior and said his conduct with current Thacher students always stayed within the bounds of appropriate conduct.” He said he does not remember the night she says he touched her because he too was drunk and blacked out. Perry then told investigators that he “believes the student,” she is a person of “the utmost integrity” and “he would not refute what she believed happened.”

When speaking directly to investigators about the sexually explicit emails, Perry told them, “I wouldn’t randomly do it . . . I would have conversations that certainly in hindsight appear inappropriate, but at the time felt like a confidence between friends.”

Following that conversation Perry sent a written clarification to investigators which seemed to try and further explain away his actions that included a “long list of character witnesses.” 

Perry’s letter stated, “I believe it is important to break the analysis down into two separate time periods,” when she was a student, and after graduation. “This delineation is important, because Thacher has always treated its graduates as adults soon after graduation . . . I also believe that it is very important to look at the whole picture of my involvement with Thacher, its students, and the Complainant. I do not want to attack her recollection; but I do want to make sure that the [Special Committee] recognizes that I have interacted with thousands of students and become close to any number of them . . . To be crystal clear, my interactions with the Complainant as a student were similar to my interactions with scores of students over the years. They reflected the norms of Thacher.” He said that his and his family’s “special interest” in the student “was wholly appropriate and endorsed by the School.”

In explaining the context of the emails, Perry wrote to investigators, “For me, the emails were two adults very comfortable with the friendship delving into slightly taboo subjects.” Although he also wrote that he does not “recall sending” any such emails. 

The investigation includes other examples of Perry’s inappropriate behavior with students. 

A school administrator told investigators about reports the school received in 2011, over a decade after Michaelson graduated, that while Perry was head of a girls dorm a “female student reported that Perry would drink alcohol and then walk around the dorm and enter into girls’ rooms while they were wearing only nightgowns. The student reported that this made her feel uncomfortable.”

Perry was “counseled by the School not to drink alcohol while engaged in School duties” and moved to a boys dorm.  

Another Thacher parent also reported that in the 1990s Perry would also come into the girls’ dorms while they were in their nightgowns, and go into their rooms. He was described as “handsy” and being “touchy-feely” with students by other faculty members. Perry tried to meet with another student at a bar when she was in college. 

The report reveals a pattern. It was common knowledge at Thacher that some staff engaged in behavior that made students and parents uncomfortable, and yet they were shuffled from one position to another or allowed to leave quietly. 

 “The good-ol’-boy network is alive and well at Thacher.”

“What shocked me most was the blind eye,” said Sullivan. “The fact that the administration was hiring people with records of offenses, welcoming them back. They were trying to keep these things quiet.” 

Even now she says the delay in releasing the report “seems to be all about protecting the school and not putting survivors first. That’s what is important to me now. It seems that by waiting until the end of the year, the perpetrators can just move on.” 

“As a parent of a survivor, every parent is going on this roller coaster. From rage to terrible sadness to betrayal. We are in charge. We have one job — to raise my kid and keep them safe and I failed. We know our kids wouldn’t be at Thacher without us. While it’s ridiculous to blame yourself [as a parent], we are still living through this.” 

“I cry for the school, but to rehabilitate I think they may need a clean sweep of the administration and the board,” said Sullivan. She wonders about the decision of the school to go co-ed in 1977 and whether that was unwise given the culture and ethos of the school’s founding. According to Sulllivan, “with the cowboy western culture [of Thacher] maybe they went co-ed before they were ready for it. The good-ol’-boy network is alive and well at Thacher.” 

Solidarity with survivors

“Thacher really cut my parents out of the loop. Issues were not communicated to my parents. They took over raising me and kept my parents out of the picture. They were in loco parentis, and negligent in their care of me,” said Sara Brody, Thacher graduate, class of 2011. 

Brody is part of a group who are organizing to shed light on the rape culture and related issues to foster change at the school. They have created a website, www.accountability4thacher.com with information about ways to get involved in those efforts.

The group has submitted a petition with hundreds of signatures calling for the removal of Mulligan’s name from campus, stripping a recent award from him and banning him from the campus in the future. 

“The petition is the tip of the iceberg,” said Brody. “Healing for the survivors should be at the forefront . . . It’s the bare minimum and a no-brainer to remove this guy’s name from the [Mulligan Dining Hall] . . . It’s about holding [him] responsible [for being] complacent with sexual misconduct . . . of not just ignoring sexual violence, but of enabling it here on campus . . . with the the boys-will-be-boys attitude.” 

During the first year at Thacher, students attend an “assigned date dance . . . it’s a mystery who your date is going to be,” said Brody. The dances paired “senior boys with freshman girls . . . 18-year-old boys and 14-year-old girls being paired off.” 

“I think I was too young to pick up on it being weird,” Brody said “The school really encourages that getting attention from an older guy is a good thing. I don’t remember any discussion about boundaries.” She said it’s really common for the upperclassmen to be “preying on freshman girls. That rape culture is very normalized at the school.” 

School officials have held several calls for members of the Thacher community to talk openly about the report, ask questions and provide input to board members. But Brody said the response from school head Pidduck and other board members was “extremely disappointing . . . people are very angry after the calls.” 

She said a statement made by board chair Dan Yih in a June 22 phone call was essentially defending Mulligan, saying he had the “best interests of students” in mind when he allowed Friborg to be hired, or didn’t report incidents to the police.

“In regard to sexual violence against children, that is a little dysfunctional,” said Brody. She points out that when Yih said he finds some of the statements hard to reconcile “with the man he knows,” it seems “like he was saying he didn’t believe the allegations.” 

Brody and other alumni, parents and faculty are demanding changes at the school. Some might see the demands as an effort to tear the school down, but Brody doesn’t see it that way. 

“I want to make a positive difference . . . I’m standing up for my younger self,” said Brody. She was not sexually abused while at the school, but said that she and her fellow organizers stand in solidarity with all survivors. She did feel isolated and, because she wasn’t enmeshed in the culture and activities, she felt ostracized. “It was the most alienating experience of my life to attend school there, they rejected me from the moment I got there.” 

Brody also recalls that realizing she was gay at the time and “having no support, no visibility in the community,” was very hard. Later, when she went to study abroad for a year, it was “extremely eye opening for me. I realized I can make friends. I’m not a monster. I just don’t fit in [that culture]. They blamed me for everything that went wrong . . . I know there are other people really struggling at Thacher. They didn’t want me to know that other people felt the same way as me. They didn’t want me to find those people.”

Brody is not alone in her accounts of being ignored. A June 25 post on the @rpecultureatthacher Instagram page states, It’s not like we haven’t tried asking for change before this report came out. For decades the people who have been putting in an ‘earnest effort’ have been tone-policed, silenced, gaslit, and shut down at almost every turn.” 

Brody is not convinced the school can be reformed because the culture is so “entrenched in its upper-crust straight . . . bastion of white privilege. It’s ruled by money.” 

“A lot of people still really love Thacher . . . there are a lot of positive takeaways, and you see the dysfunction. We are trying to help the school achieve its vision for itself, to make it a better place.”

  1. Report to the Board of Trustees at Thacher School, June 2021
  2. The Sexual Healing Journey, Wendy Maltz, 2002. 
  3. The Long-Term Effects of Childhood Sexual Abuse: Counseling Implications, Melissa Hall and Joshua Hall, https://www.counseling.org/docs/disaster-and-trauma_sexual-abuse/long-term-effects-of-childhood-sexual-abuse.pdf?sfvrsn=2

 

Ventura County Family Justice Center: www.vcfjc.org 

Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network: www.rainn.org 

Accountability 4 Thacher: www.accountability4thacher.com