Thacher School alumna sues Ojai boarding school over sexual assault




  • In US
  • 2022-12-01 01:42:54Z
  • By VC Star | Ventura County Star
Jennifer Christiansen Vurno, right, sits with her attorney Paul Mones during a news conference Wednesday in Culver City detailing her civil lawsuit filed against The Thacher School in Ojai.
Jennifer Christiansen Vurno, right, sits with her attorney Paul Mones during a news conference Wednesday in Culver City detailing her civil lawsuit filed against The Thacher School in Ojai.  

An alumna of the Thacher School in Ojai filed a lawsuit alleging sexual misconduct during her time as a student, the first such complaint by a named plaintiff since last year's report investigating sexual assault at the boarding school.

Jennifer Christiansen Vurno, 44, of Washington, sued the elite private school alleging sexual assault and harassment, emotional distress, violation of mandatory child abuse reporting and multiple instances of negligence.

During a news conference Wednesday morning in Culver City, Vurno and her attorney Paul Mones recounted details of her experience at the school.

"I am not here because of what they claim to be," Vurno said. "I am here because I am a victim-survivor of child sexual assault perpetrated on the Thacher campus by my high school soccer coach, teacher, college advisor."

Vurno named the coach who was also mentioned in Thacher's 91-page report issued in June 2021. As of Wednesday, the man had not been charged with a crime in Ventura County, according to court records. The Star could not immediately reach the coach and does not generally name those who have not been charged.

Vurno's complaint, filed in Ventura County Superior Court on Nov. 15, alleges the coach was hired by Thacher in 1987 despite having been dismissed by his previous employer, the Governor's Academy in Newbury, Massachusetts. According to the complaint, the man admitted to "dating" a student on the girls' soccer team he had coached, leading to his dismissal.

At the Governor's Academy, the coach worked alongside Michael Mulligan, who would later become the dean of students at the Thacher School at the time the man was hired as a teacher and varsity girls soccer coach. The complaint says the school's 2021 report details the Thacher headmaster at the time, Willard "Bill" Wyman II, was aware of the incident when interviewing the coach to work at the school.

Vurno attended Thacher from 1992 to 1996 and was a member of the varsity girls' soccer team since her sophomore year. She recalled there had been rumors about a relationship one of the coaches had with a player, but otherwise was unaware of possible misconduct by staff.

The complaint details years of alleged grooming of Vurno by the coach, leading to multiple instances of sexual misconduct by him during the spring of her senior year.

"He took this trust and belief and used it against me as a tool to perpetrate the most heinous crime of sexual violence against my 17-year-old self," Vurno said, choking back tears.

Vurno said she did not report the incident directly to school administration at the time due to embarrassment and fear. A year after she graduated, Vurno learned the coach had been quietly let go by the school after three other students reported sexual misconduct by him.

Vurno said the school could pretend that it had not destroyed the victims' lives.

"He was protected, and I was abandoned," she said.

Carly Rodriguez, a spokesperson for the Thacher School, said in an emailed statement that Thacher is committed to supporting survivors and the well-being of its students and alumni.

"Given that this matter is now the subject of litigation, it would be inappropriate to comment further at this time," the statement reads.

The complaint comes over a year after an investigation conducted by the Los Angeles law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson into reports of sexual assault by staff against students at the school, which has roughly 240 students and over $60,000 in annual tuition.

Vurno said when she first thought about speaking out about her experience, she would feel so sick it would prevent her from going about her daily life. However, after she spoke to Munger, Tolles & Olson for the school's investigation, she felt empowered to fight what she described as "a culture of not reporting."

"For many, many years after leaving the physical campus I believed it was my duty and obligation to not tarnish the image of the school, but to do so rendered me and my experience completely invisible," Vurno said.

She said she ultimately decided to speak up under her own name in order to take control of the narrative back from the school, and she hopes it helps other sexual assault survivors from the school.

"I want to help give a voice to those who are understandably too embarrassed, shameful or fearful of using their real name," Vurno said.

Although Vurno's lawsuit is the first civil suit with a named complainant, it is not the only legal challenge to surface as a result of the investigation's report. Earlier this year, a 53-year-old former student represented by attorney Gloria Allred filed a civil suit against the Thacher School.

In October, the Ventura County District Attorney's Office filed the first criminal charge of felony false imprisonment in the court's Juvenile Division stemming from the sexual assault investigations. Dozens of other pending cases are undergoing investigation by the Ventura County Sheriff's Office.

Editor's note: this story has been updated with information about the criminal charges filed by the Ventura County District Attorney's Office.

Jeremy Childs is a general assignment reporter covering courts, crime and breaking news for the Ventura County Star. He can be reached at 805-437-0208, jeremy.childs@vcstar.com, and on Twitter @Jeremy_Childs.

This article originally appeared on Ventura County Star: Thacher School alumna sues Ojai school over sexual assault

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