OP-ED by retired head of Thacher School Michael Mulligan: Inaccurate report and symbolic acts at Thacher will not address real causes of the problem

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Submitted photo

Michael Mulligan, former head of The Thacher School in Ojai from 1992 to 2018, when he retired.


By Michael Mulligan
The Thacher School and community are going through a difficult, wrenching time as they seek to grapple with allegations of sexual abuse, both in the distant past but also continuing to today. Like everyone else who loves Thacher, I want to see it come through this terrible experience a better community. Most importantly, I want those who suffered abuse and trauma to find healing and a positive way forward. The allegations of harm unearthed over the last year are devastating. I’m heartsick to know that students suffered, and my deepest compassion and sympathies are with those who were hurt.

The school is right to take seriously allegations of abuse, no matter how far back they date. The Thacher community must create a culture where survivors can come forward without fear or shame. We must listen and strive to understand. We must hold perpetrators of abuse accountable. And we must make clear that harassment and abuse will never be tolerated.

In our rush to address this crisis, however, we run real risks from cutting corners, shedding our objectivity, and reaching sweeping conclusions not based on facts. The results can be traumatizing for all involved, including individuals who are not blameworthy. It can also be re-traumatizing for the victims. We must always strive to do better and to be better. But there are no shortcuts on that path.

I remain deeply concerned that Thacher’s current leadership and board believe they can put the terrible allegations of abuse behind them through the publication of an inaccurate and incomplete report, as well as a series of symbolic acts that will not address the real causes of the problem, do not honor the victims, and will not ensure that the school’s leadership is accountable for maintaining a culture where there is no place for abusive behavior.
I have personally come under criticism from Thacher’s current board, for, in their view, not doing enough to protect students while I was the head of school. During my more than three decades as an educator and administrator at Thacher, I always acted to protect our students. But my actions were made based on the information available to me. When I learned of abuse, I took immediate action against the perpetrators.

Since the publication of the board’s report, my wife, Joy Sawyer-Mulligan, and I have received the support of a broad cross-section of the Thacher community. We share their pride in the many ways Thacher developed between the 1990s and the last decade to become a world-class, values-based institution that helps remarkable young people from all walks of life become their best selves. For both Joy and me, it has been the honor of our professional lives to help the school grow and thrive. These longtime members of the Thacher community also did not recognize the school they love in the misleading report the board produced.

Looking back decades, if I had heard then what I have heard now, I could have acted differently. Applying hindsight to the new allegations that have come to light, everything looks clearer and different decisions seem apparent. Whether in these circumstances or any other, before the court of public opinion decides to punish those who are accused of not taking sufficient action to prevent abuse, we have to ask, did they do the best they could given what they knew?

Holding me to an impossible standard — expecting I could address or eradicate abuse no one knew of — is an effort by this board to deflect away from its own failures of leadership. It does not serve Thacher well and the total lack of due process discourages capable people from pursuing the professions of teaching and educational leadership.

For the broader Thacher community going forward, in the end, what matters is not the Thacher board’s decision to take my name and my wife’s name off a building (an honor we never sought). It is not even the concerted effort, through a misleading and inaccurate report, to shift the focus away from the Thacher of today and the school’s present culture, the responsibilities for which rest with this Thacher board and current school leadership.

What matters most is whether the community will remain devoted to Thacher’s foundational principles of Honor, Fairness, Kindness, and Truth.

Thacher will be able to move forward only if it does the hard and fully honest work of reflecting on how it can become better than it is, and better than it was. The school must learn from painful events to ensure they are not repeated. It can do so only with a clear-eyed, objective look at both the past and the present, considering all the facts, with no aim except to determine the whole truth.


— Michael Mulligan of New England was head of The Thacher School from 1992 to 2018, when he retired. He worked at Thacher for 32 years and was head of school for 26 of those years. He has worked in education for 42 years.