A second former student has sued an exclusive private school in Southern California, saying its administrators knowingly hired a sexual predator who went on to repeatedly abuse her.
Jennifer Christiansen Vurno of Washington announced Wednesday that she is suing The Thacher School in Ojai for negligence, and sexual assault and harassment.
Vurno, 44, said she was repeatedly sexually assaulted by a soccer coach in 1996 when she was 17 years old, and that the school knew the coach was a predator when he was hired nearly a decade earlier.
USA TODAY doesn't typically name sexual assault survivors but Vurno said she wanted to go public to encourage others to speak up.
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Vurno is among dozens of former Thacher students who have accused former school administrators, teachers and coaches of sexual abuse and of creating a culture that allowed it to thrive for decades.
Vurno's was the second lawsuit filed in as many months that will attempt to hold the school accountable.
The school, where students stay in dorms throughout the academic year, has said none of the accused works at the institution anymore and that it has made the changes necessary for a safe environment.
The accusations first came to light on several social media accounts in 2020, which prompted Thacher's board of trustees to hire a law firm to conduct an independent investigation.
After months of interviewing more than 120 former students, parents, faculty, staff and trustees, the school's law firm issued a lengthy report that outlined what it deemed credible allegations of misconduct against six former teachers and administrators, including the coach Vurno says targeted her.
"I looked to him for guidance and care, trusting completely in his ability to help and support me," Vurno said of her former coach during a tearful news conference announcing her lawsuit. "He took that trust and belief and use it against me as a tool to perpetrate the most heinous crime of sexual violence against my 17-year-old self."
'Inconceivable' coach would abuse student again, administrator reasoned
Vurno said the abuse began when she went to the coach worried about whether dropping a class would affect her college prospects. He told her that it would, then started rubbing her back when she began to cry, and soon after went under her shirt and touched her breasts, she told the school's law firm.
The assaults escalated from there and continued throughout her senior year, she said. Vurno said she didn't report them largely partly because Michael Mulligan, who was Thacher's headmaster at the time of the coach's alleged abuse, was good friends with the coach.
Mulligan knew that the coach had a previous "inappropriate relationship" with a student when Thacher hired him in 1987, according to the law firm's report.
Mulligan had previously worked with the coach at a Massachusetts boarding school, where Mulligan discovered his relationship with a senior on the girls' soccer team, according to the report.
Although Mulligan was the one to report the relationship to the school – leading to the coach's resignation in Massachusetts – Mulligan said he supported Thacher's hiring of him because he was a great soccer coach and it was "inconceivable that he would make the same mistake he had made before," the report said.
Mulligan, who was serving as Thacher's dean of students when the coach was hired, said then-Headmaster Bill Wyman also knew about the coach's past and "fully explored the incident" before hiring him. Wyman, who stepped down as headmaster from the school amid separate allegations of sexual misconduct, has since died.
The coach left the school in 1997 after another girl went to Mulligan and reported that he had had groped her.
In a recent statement to the law firm, the coach said he was "rightfully fired for my transgression" with the student.
"I have felt deep shame and regret ever since and I have tried to rebuild and live my life with all the righteousness, purity, and humility my prayers can find in my effort for redemption," he wrote, according to the law firm. "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."
Mulligan told the law firm that he "very much regrets" supporting the coach's hiring.
'It made me feel like nothing'
Thacher spokesman Carly Rodriguez didn't immediately respond to a request for comment but has previously said the institution has shown its commitment to the safety of its students by commissioning the investigation, making it public and cooperating with law enforcement.
Rodriguez has declined to comment on a separate lawsuit filed in October by another former Thacher student.
That student said she was just 13 in 1982 when Wyman began paying her "special attention" and putting his arms around her.
"This unwanted attention quickly escalated with increased touching and eventually leading to groping of my breasts and body," she said.
When she complained to faculty, she said they told her Wyman was just being “grandfatherly,” even though those same staff members "would often pull him off of me when he touched me inappropriately or got too close in public."
Police have identified nearly 100 cases of misconduct at the school, with allegations ranging from pervasive sexual harassment to rape, and dating as far back as the 1960s.
No one accused of abuse at Thacher has faced any criminal consequences, and it's unlikely they ever will because most the alleged crimes are so old, they fall under California's statute of limitations.
Vurno told USA TODAY that it was "devastating" she couldn't pursue a criminal case against her former coach but has felt some empowerment being able to sue the school, especially given that the coach's past was known.
"The school knowingly put me in danger and then knowingly let him go," she said. "The message that sent to me was that his life was more important than mine ... that a winning soccer team was worth my life.
"It made me feel like nothing."
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: California's Thacher School sued by 2nd former student over sex abuse