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Elite Thacher school is hit again with sexual abuse allegations

Elite Thacher school is hit again with sexual abuse allegations


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

More recently the institution, which was founded in 1889, has been making headlines for its high-profile #MeToo reckoning.

In June, LA law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson released an independent 91-page report revealing decades of sexual misconduct involving faculty and students. The findings divided alumni, some of whom questioned the independence of the report and felt a former head of school was scapegoated while the current administration was not held to the same scrutiny. In light of the 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 administration covered up an alleged May 2021 assault in which one student, a relative of school founder Sherman Day Thacher, was reportedly accused of choking another student while having sex. It’s unclear when higher ups 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 allegedly approached the student in August telling him to leave the school and, in exchange, it would not report the incident to investigators at MTO, nor would his college recommendations from Thacher be affected.

The elite Thacher School in Ojai, California, costs $67,940 a year.
Credit: thethacherschool/Instagr

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

This latest development has thrown Thacher into damage-control mode, with the head of school taking a leave of absence — and coming forward as a victim of sexual misconduct by a faculty member when she was a student at the school, the events of which were documented in the initial MTO report.

In a March 17 letter, head of school Blossom Pidduck, who attended Thacher in the early ’90s, announced her leave.

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

“In order to be able to continue to do the work of supporting and caring for others, I need to take some time for my own healing.”

Head of school Blossom Pidduck has taken a leave of absence
Head of school Blossom Pidduck has taken a leave of absence.

Chair of the school’s board, Dan Yih, called her letter the “ultimate demonstration of strength and leadership.”

But some in the Thacher community are questioning the timing of her statement, adding that it only raises more concern about culpability of both the administration and the board of trustees.

“If Ms. Pidduck is so attuned to survivors, why didn’t she, her administration and the board report in a timely manner — as required by law — the May sexual misconduct choking event to MTO or the county sheriff?,” Thacher alum and former longtime trustee and audit committee chair Philip Pillsbury told The Post.

“From the Law & Crime story, it appears she and her administration engaged in a major cover-up of student-on-student wrongdoing using the threat of revealing it in a second MTO report to cause the perpetrating student to ‘voluntarily’ withdraw from the school. How is this protecting the victim? How does such a cover-up deter perpetrators? Why didn’t Blossom Pidduck as Thacher’s head report this awful misconduct immediately to law enforcement, as both federal and California mandatory reporting of such abuse require?”

Under California state law, educators are legally mandated to report such instances to authorities. Those who fail to do so can be charged with a misdemeanor that can carry a sentence of six months in jail.

The Post asked the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department if it was probing the issue.

Actor Noah Wyle is one of the school's famous alums and is pictured with the former head of school, Michael Mulligan. Wyle is not involved with the allegations.
Actor Noah Wyle is one of the school’s famous alums and is pictured with a former head of school, Michael Mulligan. Wyle is not involved with the allegations.
Getty Images

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

(After the Law & Crime story ran, 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 alluded to in this report when the assault occurred.”)

Brent Nibecker, the supervising deputy district attorney, told The Post he wasn’t able to comment.

Pillsbury added: “Do we, as a school community, now have a head of school and members of her administration potentially guilty themselves of criminal misconduct by not reporting until last December this specific May incident? These questions speak to her responsibility as head of school, not to her survivorship.”

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

When The Post asked Thacher about Pidduck’s leave and if any members of the administration had retained counsel in light of the Law & Crime report, the school released her letter, adding that they will not make any additional statements.

In recent years, elite boarding schools have been forced to grapple with unsavory parts of their history. Ritzy Northeast institutions such as Choate Rosemary Hall and St. Paul’s in New Hampshire have undergone similar auditing for sexual abuse on campus.

Former head of school, Michael Mulligan's name was removed from the dining hall
Michael Mulligan’s name was removed from the dining hall.

The MTO report did not implicate Michael Mulligan — whose tenure at Thacher lasted over three decades, until he retired in 2018, and included serving as head of school for 25 years — in having engaged in any 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 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 did note that Mulligan confronted, fired and reported abusers, but that he also expressed regret over his handling of some situations.

The school removed his name from the dining hall, which led to blowback 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 devoted 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, we also, as a matter of social justice, believe in due process. After a careful review of recent events at Thacher, we believe Michael Mulligan has been denied this most fundamental right.”

Now, this latest bombshell has kicked up another cloud of mistrust and discord among the once-close-knit community. Pillsbury, whose father and son also attended Thacher, called it “heartbreaking.”

“At Thacher, you live by the tenets of ‘honor, fairness, kindness and truth.’ This board and the administration aren’t living up to the creed. They won’t talk about it. They won’t respond to our questions,” he said, adding, “That is not the Thacher way.”



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