Ojai boarding school counselor with abuse history sexually abused student, suit alleges




  • In US
  • 2022-11-30 23:57:40Z
  • By LA Times
The Thacher School in Ojai on June 22, 2021. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
The Thacher School in Ojai on June 22, 2021. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)  

A former student at the Thacher School is suing the prestigious Ojai boarding school, alleging she was repeatedly sexually abused by a counselor and soccer coach who was hired despite the headmaster knowing the man left an East Coast school because of an inappropriate relationship with a female student.

Jennifer Christiansen Vurno, who is now 44, alleges that John Friborg, her high school college counselor and soccer coach, groped her numerous times, kissed her and digitally penetrated her in 1996. Her suit, filed in Ventura County Superior Court, is at least the second against the school since the 2021 school-commissioned report revealed decades of abuse and allegations at the campus.

"In my senior year, at the most desperate and struggling moments, I went to John Friborg to seek help. I looked to him for guidance and care, trusting completely in his ability to help and support me," Vurno said at a news conference Wednesday, asking reporters to use her name. "He took this trust and belief and used it against me to perpetrate the most heinous of crimes of sexual abuse against my 17-year-old self."

Vurno said she didn't know that nearly 10 years before, in 1987, when Friborg joined the Thacher staff, "he was hired despite admitting to a school administrator that he had dated a female high school soccer player at his previous high school, the Governor's Academy." She said she was so embarrassed and fearful as a teen she could not report it. A year after her abuse, three other young survivors of his abuse reported it to the school, and he quietly left, according to the lawsuit.

Her sexual assaults, she said, "were compounded by the silence and inaction of the school." The school covered up the allegations until a law firm report in 2021 detailed decades of allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment against students and "boundary crossing" by faculty members. The 91-page report was commissioned by Thacher and compiled by lawyers with the Los Angeles firm Munger, Tolles & Olson.

Her attorney, Paul Mones, said Vurno is one of the survivors of the abuse interviewed in the report that identifies Friborg as one of the school staff perpetrators of abuse.

School officials did not respond to the lawsuit allegations on Wednesday.

According to the school's own commissioned report, former Thacher head Michael Mulligan said he worked with Friborg at the Governor's Academy in Massachusetts and reported to that school that Friborg was having a relationship with a female senior soccer player. According to the report, Friborg was asked to leave at the end of the school year as a result of the relationship."

Mulligan told investigators for the report that he supported Friborg's hiring at Thacher because it was "inconceivable" to him Friborg would make a mistake again.

The school report found four of the coach's victims at Thacher, including Vurno, involving grooming, massages and sexual touching. A fellow teacher reported her concerns about Friborg to Mulligan, and the school's headmaster told her to speak directly to the counselor/coach. According to the report, the female student and her father reported the inappropriate conduct to Mulligan. Then with three students reporting inappropriate misconduct by Friborg, Mulligan confronted him and Friborg admitted that at least one of the girl's allegations was accurate. Mulligan told him to resign but never reported it to law enforcement.

Mulligan led the school from 1992 to 2018. When he retired, the school named its new 412-seat dining hall after him and his wife, Joy, a beloved teacher and administrator. In the aftermath of the 2021 report, Mulligan's name would be removed from the school because of occasions in which he "failed to appropriately demonstrate leadership and act when informed of concerns about sexual misconduct."

The principal who hired Friborg in 1987, Bill Wyman, who served as headmaster from 1975 to 1992, was found by the report to have engaged in "a pattern of offensive verbal conduct and improper touching" toward female students and staff. Wyman resigned after the discovery.

Earlier this year, a former student sued the school, alleging that Wyman groped her numerous times when she was 13 and repeatedly made sexual remarks. The behavior was so bad, the woman said, that other staff intervened in 1982 when he "got too close to her in public."

In August, the head of the school at the time, Blossom Pidduck, resigned after an extended leave of absence following the report's unveiling. Five months earlier, Pidduck, who attended the school as a child, revealed she too was a survivor of sexual assault at Thacher.

The Thacher School encourages informal, familial relationships among students and teachers, who live on campus, dine and camp together. This, combined with rigorous academics, has long attracted the scions of some of the wealthiest families in the country, including a young Howard Hughes. It focuses on rugged, Western ideals, with its unofficial motto coming from founder Sherman Day Thacher, who said: "There's something about the outside of a horse that's good for the inside of a boy."

Last year, Thacher's Board of Trustees established a committee on student safety and well-being, directing the administration to create a task force to respond to allegations of sexual misconduct and retaining an independent expert to review the school's sexual misconduct education and response mechanisms.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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