Jennifer Christiansen Vurno with her lawyer, Paul Mones, during last month’s news conference to announce her sexual-abuse lawsuit against Ojai’s Thacher School. | Credit: Courtesy

“I’m here because I’m a victim survivor of child sexual assault perpetrated on the Thacher School campus by my high school soccer coach, teacher, college advisor, John Friborg,” said Jennifer Christiansen Vurno, a former student at the elite Ojai boarding school, at a news conference on November 30. “I have suffered every day since the day John Friborg first sexually assaulted me on the Thacher campus. I have never been the same.” 

Long before allegations detailing decades of sexual abuse at Thacher School were revealed in a report released last year, Vurno was a varsity soccer player in her senior year at Thacher in 1996. Vurno, now 44 years old and living in Washington, is suing the school for “[failing] to protect her from sexual abuse and harassment,” alleging that John Friborg groped her multiple times, kissed her, and digitally penetrated her when she was 17 on campus, both in his home and his vehicle. The civil complaint, filed in Ventura County Superior Court, asks for a jury trial, appropriate statutory damages, and costs.

The complaint alleges that before Vurno enrolled at Thacher School in 1992, the school hired Friborg despite the administration, including the headmaster, having known that he had an inappropriate relationship with a female student at the Massachusetts private school where he previously worked as a teacher and soccer coach. She said that Friborg had even admitted “to a school administrator that he had dated a female high school soccer player at his previous high school, the Governor’s Academy.”  

During her first three years at Thacher, Vurno explained she had come to trust the faculty at the prestigious boarding school, which parents today pay nearly $65,000 a year for their children to attend. Vurno said the reason she did not come forward initially was because she was “embarrassed and fearful” of what would happen if she did report the abuse; however, in the aftermath of a 2021 report commissioned by the school revealing numerous sexual misconduct allegations at Thacher, she was motivated to come forward.

“In my senior year, at a most desperate and struggling moment, I went to John Friborg to seek help,” Vurno said, close to tears as she spoke. “I looked to him for guidance and care, trusting completely in his ability to help and support me. But this was not the case. He took the 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.” 

As alleged in the complaint, Vurno is not the only student to have been assaulted by Friborg, nor is Friborg the only perpetrator named among Thacher’s former faculty. Her lawsuit against Thacher is at least the second since the school commissioned and released a 91-page report in 2021 that identified six alleged perpetrators and multiple victims of sexual misconduct at the school, including Vurno, as well as efforts by the former administration to cover up the complaints and blame the teenage victims.  

“The problems caused by John Friborg’s sexual assaults of me were compounded by the silence and inaction of the school,” Vurno said. “I lost the sense that I could expect I would be protected from harm…He was protected, and I was abandoned, cast aside. The school’s silence condoned his actions and ignored the existence of the devastating pain and destruction left upon me and the other victims.” 

Several other complaints against Friborg surfaced in 1997, following which Friborg resigned, and, according to Vurno’s attorney, Paul Mones, “To the best of our knowledge, no further investigation was done.” 

Following the report’s release in June 2021, the Ventura County Reporter relayed that “Friborg worked at two other schools after Thacher,” and, 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.’”

The 2021 report, compiled by lawyers from the Los Angeles law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson, found that Friborg targeted three other student victims at Thacher, in addition to Vurno, having allegedly groomed the students, massaged them, and molested them. 

According to the report, former Thacher head Michael Mulligan, who led the school from 1992 to 2018, worked with Friborg at the Governor’s Academy and reported to the headmaster of the academy that Friborg was having an inappropriate relationship with a senior on the girls’ soccer team. 

“The June 2021 report also stated that Mulligan discovered the relationship when he noticed Friborg and the senior girls spending too much time together,” Mones said. “Mr. Friborg was asked to leave the Governor’s Academy as a result of the report by Mr. Mulligan.” 

In an interview for the report, Mulligan stated that he supported Friborg’s hiring at Thacher, even though he knew of his prior history, but, in hindsight, he now “wishes he had worked to prevent the hiring and very much regrets that he did not do so.” According to the report, Mulligan said that it was inconceivable to him that Friborg would again “make the same mistake that he had made before.” 

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In response to the lawsuit filed by Vurno, Thacher School made the following statement: 

“While it would not be appropriate to comment on pending litigation, Thacher is committed to supporting survivors and to the safety and well-being of all its students — past, present, and future. As such, the School has implemented a number of safety enhancements to improve its protocols for preventing misconduct and responding to reports of misconduct, including strengthening its harassment and sexual misconduct policies, expanding the sexual misconduct reporting process, clarifying and increasing channels for reporting sexual misconduct and boundary violations, and providing ongoing training for all employees on these issues.”

Mulligan’s name was removed from the school’s dining hall in the aftermath of the 2021 report because of his failure to act on reports of sexual misconduct. The report also detailed allegations against Bill Wyman, Thacher’s headmaster from 1975 to 1992. According to an L.A. Times report this October, another former student sued the school, alleging Wyman groped and made sexual remarks toward her when she was 13. In addition, Blossom Pidduck, the head of the school in 2021, took an extended leave of absence following the report’s release, and then resigned in August; she had revealed that she was also a survivor of sexual assault at Thacher. 

Ventura County’s Sheriff’s Office has looked into the allegations made in the report since its original filing. According to a 2021 press release from the Sheriff’s Office, “Some of the allegations were previously reported to the Sheriff’s Office; however, the majority were not.” The press release stated that every allegation would “be evaluated to determine if a crime occurred and if the statute of limitations will allow for the prosecution of any offense(s).”  

The Sheriff’s Office is 90 percent complete with its investigations, according to Sergeant Ryan Clark. Although they presented a number of cases to the District Attorney’s Office for review, only one case was filed, in which the suspect was also a former student at Thacher (the felony charge was filed for false imprisonment by violence, alleging the victim was restrained during an assault). Since the allegations date as far back as the 1960s, many were past the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution.

Vurno’s case, involving sexual assault allegations, has exceeded the statute of limitations for criminal charges. However, Vurno filed her suit under California’s 2019 statute, namely Assembly Bill 218, which gave adults like Vurno a three-year revival window to file civil lawsuits involving their childhood sexual abuse that are outside the statute of limitations. This window began in January 2020 and is set to close on December 31, 2022.

Clark said that the primary goal of the Sheriff’s Office is to document the cases and “provide survivors with benefits and resources,” such as directing them to organizations like Santa Barbara’s rape crisis center and the Ventura County Family Justice Center.

“It’s been challenging prosecuting these cases,” Clark said, noting that many of the survivors, like Vurno, are now in their forties and fifties. They’ve been going through the allegations on an individual, case-by-case basis. 

Thacher does not stand alone as the only private school in the region to face sexual abuse allegations. Last year, a former music teacher at Cate School, a private boarding school in Carpinteria, was arrested in Boulder, Colorado, in July 2021 for multiple reported allegations of sexual misconduct toward students at Alexander Dawson School, the private K-12 grade school where he worked. 

The teacher, Da’Jon Tyrik James, was also a suspect in the Cate School sex abuse investigation in the same year. Cate School commissioned its own, extensive report of faculty-student misconduct in fall 2020. The 37-page report was released in December 2021, and names 17 faculty members as perpetrators of sexual misconduct against students, including James. 

According the report, in the time James was Director of Vocal Music at Cate from summer 2019 to February 2020, James was involved in “‘crossing of boundaries’ in multiple respects, including physical touching of female students, discussing personal matters, developing intimate friendships with female students, saying inappropriate sexual comments, having students in his campus apartment until late at night, and treating students as peers.”

James was charged in Boulder County court with three counts of sexual assault of a child by one in a position of trust and one count of unlawful sexual contact. According to the Daily Camera, a Boulder newspaper, James took a plea deal earlier this month, in which he pleaded guilty to second degree assault and sexual exploitation of a child. As a result, he will be sentenced to 10 years of sex-offender intensive supervised probation on the sexual exploitation charge, and could face two to six years in prison for the second-degree assault charge. 

There is an apparent pattern of sexual abuse in private boarding schools, where students and faculty exist in close quarters, and are encouraged to form strong bonds with one another; the familial environment, while often beneficial for the students’ development, can also lead to those in positions of authority taking advantage of students. In the case of Thacher, Vurno said she is coming forward with her name, instead of as an anonymous Jane Doe, “to help give a voice to those who understandably are too embarrassed, shameful, or fearful of using their real name.”  

“This school was my home, and my family,” Vurno said. “For many, many years after leaving the physical campus, I believed that 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. I’m here to shed my shame … because it was not my fault. I’m here to bring my assault and pain into the light … I want to pull back the curtain and come out of the shadows to state that victims survivors of sexual abuse will no longer be silenced.”

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