A Tale of Two Schools

By Gwyn Lurie   |   July 29, 2021
Cate School is tucked away in the foothills of Carpinteria (Photo by Nick Masuda)

This week, the MJ’s Nick Masuda writes about an investigation by law enforcement regarding reports of sexual abuse and misconduct by a former Cate School employee, months after campus officials told alumni they had launched their own internal investigation into potential abuse that could date back decades. Several sexual assault survivors, current and former Cate students, have been identified, according to a Sherriff’s statement.

This comes on the heels of Thacher School’s release of a 91-page report detailing allegations of sexual misconduct on its Ojai campus.

So far, Thacher has been recognized for dealing with their situation with a high level of transparency that is in stark contrast to Cate’s muddled handling of its own crisis.

In a certain sense it’s a tale of two cultures — old-school vs. new-school. Cate seems to be engaging in the antiquated and always doomed-to-fail practice of circling the wagons and victim shaming (or discounting), while Thacher’s willingness to own this unfortunate part of its history and deal with it transparently comes across as a clear and sincere attempt to make things right, or as right as possible.

History has shown us that you can’t sweep these things under the rug. Well, you can, but eventually when someone moves that rug, there it will be — a big ugly pile of filth.

How many examples do we need? L.A.’s Marlborough School, New York’s Horace Mann School, Penn State/Jerry Sandusky, USC’s $1 billion payout to victims of their campus gynecologist, the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics Team and their predatory coaches — the list is far too long to recount. What we’ve learned from how different institutions handle these crises is that when an institution tries to protect its reputation over the safety and well-being of its students, everyone loses. It’s a short-term play that never works. At least not anymore.

In 2008, my niece was a junior at Marlborough, an elite girls’ private school in Los Angeles. Preyed upon by her English teacher for months, she, along with her parents, reported the misconduct to the school. Even with emails to prove the abuse, the school did little to rectify the situation, claiming this was a “one-off.” All they did was require the teacher to undergo counseling.

At the end of my niece’s freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania, she posted an essay about her experience in high school which culminated with a certain unnamed English teacher at a certain unnamed private high school touching her knee. I still remember the first line of her essay: “The part I least like talking about is how flattered I was,” she wrote, with breathtaking honesty. The story went viral. Within hours, eight other girls contacted my niece — they knew exactly what school and what teacher she was referring to, because they too had been victimized — some far worse.

This was not a one-off.

The school immediately had an “unsweepable” crisis on its hands, causing the board of trustees to pull together a “special investigative committee” to look into and address the crisis. This culminated in the previously “beloved” head of school stepping down (after 26 years) and ultimately the conviction and imprisonment of my niece’s teacher — she was not the one who pressed charges.

I tell you this story not because it’s unique. Quite the opposite. I personally have had my own experiences, the first back in 1978 when I was in junior high — when there was truly nowhere and no one to turn to for help. My niece and I and the students at Cate and Thacher share the company of crowded, standing-room-only stadiums of victims who at some point found themselves in the grips of a person in power who groomed them, made them feel “special” and preyed upon them; someone whose attention initially flattered them.

In April, Cate officials sent an update on the investigation stating that they expected the report by their investigating team to be delivered in early June. Officials said they intended to “share a detailed summary of the findings with all of the constituencies of the school.” It does not appear that the report has been publicly released.

The board of trustees at Cate needs to act firmly and decisively on behalf of the school’s victims. An important root of “trustee” is trust and trustee literally means a person or entity that has been entrusted to be responsible for the property and/or well-being of another. Trusteeship extends not just to the institution itself but to everyone who ever inhabits that campus.

My advice? Publish the report. Bring the community along on this journey. Own your history — the good, the bad, and the ugly. And next time a student reports that something inappropriate happened, do something about it. Immediately. Institute a zero-tolerance policy. And don’t tell them it was “a first.” Because it wasn’t. It never is. And unfortunately, it’s not a last either. But what matters is that you do everything in your power to listen to and protect the precious young lives with which you have been entrusted.

That, more than anything, will protect your reputation.


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