A new lawsuit from a woman who attended the elite Thacher School in Ojai, California, 40 years ago accuses the school of ignoring repeated sexual abuse, the first legal action since a report in 2020 detailed extensive misconduct.
Identified in the complaint as Jane Doe, the woman was 13 when she started at the school as a freshman in 1982. She left after her sophomore year in 1984 at the age of 15 after enduring what the lawsuit describes as repeated sexual abuse from the school’s headmaster and a nurse.
The school’s leadership told her she wasn’t welcome for a third year after her complaints, national victims’ rights lawyer Gloria Allred said Wednesday during a Zoom press conference.
Filed Tuesday in Ventura County Superior Court, the complaint comes nearly 18 months after the school’s board of trustees released a report 91-page report detailing sexual misconduct by school employees against students dating back to the 1980s. The report from the law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP was criticized as incomplete, with a February Law&Crime article describing a misconduct claim against a student who was a relative of the school’s founder that wasn’t included in the report because the relative was allowed to leave the school instead. Three school board members resigned shortly after the article published, and a former head of school publicly identified herself as a victim of abuse at the school, too.
The school did not return a voicemail from Law&Crime seeking comment on Wednesday.
Allred said Wednesday her client contacted Munger Tolles attorneys after learning of the report to tell them of her own victimization at the school. She also reported the abuse to law enforcement, Allred said, though no criminal charges have ever been announced in connection with the school.
Allred said the school promised a supplemental report but one was never provided.
“We are very proud of our client and the courage she has demonstrated in deciding to file this lawsuit against this very powerful and prestigious school,” Allred said. “She hopes her case will assist both her and other former students in learning the truth about why Thacher failed so many of her students.”
The woman spoke off camera during the Zoom conference, describing herself as “an outgoing girl with good grades” who was looking forward to “horses, making news friends and escaping an unhappy and unsupportive home environment, which I now see made me a likely target for abuse.”
“The molestation started really within weeks of my arrival,” the woman said.
The 32-page complaint describes unwanted hugs by the horse stalls near her dormitory that escalated into the school’s headmaster pressing his erect penis against her. She allegedly told a faculty advisor the headmaster “made her feel uncomfortable and that he kept ‘hugging’ her without her consent.”
“As far as PLAINTIFF is aware, none of the faculty, staff, and older students tasked by THE THACHER SCHOOL to care for her to whom PLAINTIFF reported HEADMASTER PERPETRATOR’s sexual abuse of her took any steps to protect her as required under California law,” the complaint reads. “THE THACHER SCHOOL did not report these incidents to the authorities, nor did THE THACHER SCHOOL investigate or commence any disciplinary action against the HEADMASTER PERPETRATOR.”
The complaint says the headmaster went on to abuse other female students and employees. The school commissioned outside counsel in 1992 to to investigate allegations against him, which the complaint says detailed “approximately 17 incidents” of the headmaster “making inappropriate comments and/or inappropriately touching students.”
The complaint does not name the headmaster, but the Munger Tolles report identified the school’s headmaster during that time period as Willard “Bill” Wyman II. The plaintiff also named Wyman during Wednesday’s press conference.
In addition to Wyman, the plaintiff says she was victimized by a female nurse who, while she was sickened with a high fever, repeatedly inserted a thermometer into her anus “every hour” despite her distress over the actions. The nurse “appeared to take pleasure in anally penetrating plaintiff with the thermometer,” according to the complaint.
“The NURSE PERPETRATOR forced PLAINTIFF to remain at the infirmary overnight despite PLAINTIFF’s repeated requests to return to her dormitory and ordered PLAINTIFF to disrobe completely for a bath,” according to the complaint. “During the bath, the NURSE PERPETRATOR caressed PLAINTIFF and digitally penetrated her under the pretense of providing PLAINTIFF with a vaginal exam. At no time did PLAINTIFF consent to being digitally or anally penetrated by the NURSE PERPETRATOR.”
The woman reported the nurse’s misconduct “to others, including a female teacher who brushed aside her concerns,” the complaint alleges. She said Wednesday her “life spun out of control pretty quickly” after the abuse. She dropped out of school, was “essentially” emancipated from her parents at 16, then engaged “in some risky behaviors and poor decision making” before parenthood motivated her to change.
“I tried to put what happened at Thacher behind me and not think about it, but I realize now that it did have a profound impact on me and my life,” the woman said. “I can’t help but thinking how my life and the lives of other victims might have been different had Thacher taken my complaint seriously, investigated and ultimately fired Bill Wyman back in 1983. A decade or more of abuse could have been prevented and countless victims could have been spared.”
The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages for six claims: negligent supervision and retention, negligence per se, sexual harassment, sexual battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent failure to warn, train, or educate students.
Allred filed a similar lawsuit against the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, announced last year, alleging sexual abuse of minor students in the 1970s and 1980s.
Read the full lawsuit here.
Note: This article has been updated to reflect that the relative of the Thacher School founder was a student, not an employee.
[Images: Allred by Mark Makela/Getty Images; Thacher via screengrab/Thacher Films.]
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