‘Mistakes Were Made’: Seven Former Cate Faculty Members Banned From Campus Due to Sexual Misconduct and Assault Allegations
The accused is one of seven former Cate faculty members that were named in a damning and exhaustive investigative report released by the private boarding school on Wednesday afternoon. Amongst other improprieties, the report details how the accused was allowed to remain on campus for nine additional years despite facing sexual misconduct claims on campus dating back to 2012.
The report was the result of complaints from current students and alumni about sexual misconduct and assault dating back decades.
The investigation, conducted by the Oppenheimer Investigations Group LLP, has resulted in the immediate expulsion of the seven faculty members for “perpetuity,” with the accused the most recent resident at the Carpinteria foothills campus.
Stunningly, at least to outsiders, no current administrator nor faculty member, including those with knowledge of some of the transgressions over the past 40 years, has been reprimanded, disciplined, or fired.
According to the extensive Oppenheimer report, the accused is the latest in a decades-long run of male faculty members on campus who allegedly have groomed and sexually assaulted students on campus, with the report also naming Kirk Phelps, Scott McLeod, Robert Kusel, Martin Lowenstein, Andy Campbell and Da’Jon James.
It is unclear if any of the named alleged perpetrators will potentially be investigated by the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department, although the Sheriff’s Department did divulge earlier this year that it was looking into a case against James.
There are an additional 10 faculty members that face suspicion of sexual misconduct but did not meet Oppenheimer’s narrow criteria to be named, which included:
• The severity of the misconduct;
• Whether there was a pattern of misconduct with multiple students;
• Whether the conduct involved physical or emotional coercion, or grooming behavior;
• The number of reports made about a particular individual;
• The presence of independent corroborating evidence; and
• Ongoing current risk to students at Cate or elsewhere
Cate Board of Trustees President Lisa Browne Stanson and Chair Wyatt Gruber addressed the Cate community in a note released Wednesday afternoon, acknowledging a “challenging, heartbreaking, and deeply revealing” moment for the school.
“To the members of the Cate community who were harmed, we are outraged by these acts and deeply sorry for the pain you endured while under the school’s care. In a close community such as ours, the bonds created between people on the Mesa are meant to provide comfort and nurture growth, not to inflict trauma,” Stanson and Gruber wrote.
“The report is clear that there were instances where the school’s response fell short and we want to acknowledge that the Board and the Administration made mistakes, and for that we sincerely apologize. As we often remind our students, sometimes the greatest growth comes when we acknowledge those moments when we have failed to meet the standards we expect of ourselves.”
Studying the report closely, here is a look at what each of the seven faculty members are accused of, with the two cases involving the current state of the Cate campus prioritized due to ongoing community concerns for student safety:
The accused had two stints as a faculty member at Cate, the first from 1989-1993 and then again from 2001-2012. He is currently listed as an administrator at the Knox School of Santa Barbara.
The divulging of his alleged transgressions garnered the most feedback online, as his presence has been a consistent one for two decades.
According to the Oppenheimer report, seven Cate alumni shared information about inappropriate behavior from his first tenure at the school, including allegations of sexual activity with two students, including touching and massaging female students. Four of these reports were based on personal experience.
One student, 17 at the time, said that she had a physical relationship with the accused, wherein a fellow faculty member, Andy Campbell (also named in this report), confirmed that he was aware of the accused’s involvement with the student.
The student says that she was in the accused’s apartment when he asked her for a backrub. According to the student, he then “turned around and started kissing her, put his hands under her shirt, touched her breasts, and took off her shirt.”
Throughout the student’s senior year, she says that the accused showed particular attention to her, coming to her dorm to kiss her, taking her out to dinner and sharing a tent with her while camping.
The accused admitted to investigators that on “one occasion he and (the student) were intimate in his apartment; this encounter included kissing and putting his hand under her shirt.”
According to the student, he told her not to tell anyone.
“I can’t say it’s not true,” the accused told investigators.
Campbell says he was aware of the “inappropriate incident” between the student and the accused, but did not report it to the administration. Former Head of School Scott McLeod says he “was unaware of any misconduct involving the accused.”
Current Head of School Ben Williams was made aware of the incident at an alumni gathering in 2012, with the school retaining an investigations firm, which ultimately sustained the student’s allegation. According to the report, “Williams felt that the accused crossed a line and had to go.’ However, the accused was permitted to resign and continued to reside on campus because his wife was still employed by the school.”
It is unclear why a married predator might be less dangerous than a single one.
The report would go on to explain that “Williams said he did not believe the accused posed an ongoing risk to current Cate students because the misconduct occurred when the accused was much younger.” He continued by saying that “he had not seen anything in the accused’s subsequent behavior that suggested he was a risk to anyone’s safety,” even telling investigators that “his primary concern was ensuring that the accused’s wife felt cared for because she was an important part of the Cate community.”
According to Oppenheimer, a review of his personnel files found no mention of any inappropriate behavior, stating that “the findings of the 2012 inquiry into his misconduct were relayed to the school verbally and a contemporaneous report was prepared.”
His impact on campus continued after 2012, with one faculty member telling investigators that the accused was the keynote speaker for the Class of 2013. The faculty member was uncomfortable with this and allegedly approached Williams, who told the faculty member that “it was not within his purview to become involved.”
According to the same faculty member, the accused was brought in as a consultant for the admissions department and continued to provide private, 1-on-1 coaching for students.
The school in turn responded that “He has never been paid or hired by the School for any services since his departure in 2012. He acted as a mediator in a conflict involving members of the admissions team at the request of the admissions staff members. After leaving Cate, it is possible that the accused was invited by a graduating class to a Senior Class breakfast. There is no record that he spoke at the event.”
The investigation supported the student’s claims, with the report saying this about the school’s culpability:
“Williams’ repeated mention of his wife and his focus on whether the accused was an ongoing threat to students failed to consider that students who might have been aware of his prior conduct could interpret his continued residence on campus as indicative of the school condoning his actions.”
Despite Williams’ knowledge of the findings in 2012 and subsequently allowing the accused to reside on campus for nine years, Cate’s Board of Trustees gave him a full vote of confidence in a note they delivered on Wednesday.
“(Williams is) a deeply principled educator who cares profoundly for the well-being of students, for being a driving force behind the initiation of this investigation. He and his senior administrative team provided the important knowledge that assisted the investigators in creating a comprehensive understanding of our past — knowing that it could lead to potentially critical findings,” Lisa Browne Stanson and Wyatt Gruber wrote. “After reviewing the report, the Board continues to put its complete trust in Ben Williams and the School’s faculty and administrators.”
Reactions rolled in on a popular Instagram account, @MeTooCate, which is dedicated to the investigation process, with most of Wednesday’s comments directed at the accused and his family.
“Not only was he on campus, but he was my class’ sophomore seminar teacher, which means my first exposure to concepts such as sex and consent came from a sexual perpetrator. I cannot believe administration (knowing what he did) trusted him to teach 14/15/16 year olds about healthy relationships, boundaries, and sex education. Can we really be surprised at the rampant sexual misconduct among students in my ‘era’ of Cate? Look who we were taking our cues from. Gross on all accounts,” a 2014 Cate alum said.
Others reflected on their relationship with his wife the school’s director of learning services and human development.
“I love her, and she was an incredibly important mentor figure to me while I was at Cate. I disclosed information of my own assault to her frequently. I just don’t know how to reconcile the feelings that while I was pouring out my soul to her, she has been married to an assaulter. I feel so confused,” a 2017 alum wrote.
Some held the administration responsible.
“I’m saddened for their family today, but this action should have been taken 9 years ago when the scandal broke. The school knowingly exposed all Cate students in the last 9 years to someone they know had sexually assaulted minors. There is no excuse for that level of negligence,” a 2008 alum wrote.
When reached by the Montecito Journal to clarify their support of Williams and the current administration, Stanson and Gruber circled the wagons.
“Ben Williams has led our school for over 24 years and has consistently shown great care for the students,” Stanson and Gruber said. “He was the driving force behind the initiation of this independent and thorough investigation and the Board continues to put its complete trust in him as well as the school’s faculty and administrators. We look forward to working with the school to implement the comprehensive corrective actions that were adopted as a result of the report’s findings.
“We understand that mistakes were made, and we all learn from them. We are doing everything we can to make the school a safer place for our students now and in the future. Our focus is on the survivors and the students.”
Members of the @MeTooCate community disagree.
“This report is so poorly done. From the formatting to the vague, apologist content, it’s a joke. Comparing this report to Thacher’s makes me embarrassed to even associate with Cate. 14 months for WHAT? The school administrators and trustees knew what they were doing hiring that firm: trying to push this all under the rug. Ben Williams needs to go,” one post said.
Da’Jon James: Six Strikes & You’re Out?
While the accused was commonly referred to by sources at Cate as the campus’ worst-kept secret, the case against Da’Jon James is the one that set most of the investigation into motion.
James was at the school a short time, acting as the director of vocal music from Summer 2019 until February 2020, although the first accusation of misconduct came in September 2019.
The allegations ranged from the touching of a student’s thigh while in James’ apartment to frequent text messages to making statements such as “I don’t know why you’re still single” and referring to one student as his “dream girl.”
One student told investigators that she was watching television alone with James and he spread his legs so that she could lean back into his chest. He “encircled” her with his arms and allegedly began to kiss her neck and the top of her head, also feeling the student’s chest on top of her sweatshirt. She said that he indicated, “I know this is wrong. I shouldn’t be doing this. You’re a student.”
The student didn’t immediately come forward, fearing that she would cost James his job.
James denied most of her allegations, especially the touching of the student’s breasts.
“Wow. I am going to have to go with a hard no on that one. I made many mistakes, but I didn’t do that.”
Cate didn’t deny having a laundry list of allegations against James, with the report indicating the following:
• In September, administrators knew James had a student on his lap, had kissed a student on the forehead, had danced with a female student, and had hugged female students. He was spoken to, and an email documenting the counseling was placed in his personnel file.
• A month later, in October, administrators learned that James had made comments about a female student’s attire, including how her clothes fit, and asked her personal questions, making her and her family uncomfortable. Administrators decided to counsel James again and memorialized the conversation in an email to James, which also went in his file.
• In November, administrators learned that James had played a “would you rather” game with four girls, asking them: “Would you rather . . . or drink a bucket of semen?” Again, administrators opted to speak to James, and noted the verbal counseling in James’ personnel file.14
• In December 2019 or January 2020, administrators were informed that James grabbed a female student’s hips (Student P) and had an inappropriate interaction with Student N (which Student N denied). James was verbally counseled and told if the behavior continued he would not be asked back, or may even be dismissed mid-year, as stated in a December 2019 email to James.
• Finally, in February 2020, Student 10 told administrators that in October 2019, while at a movie, James placed his hand on her thigh and left it there for a long period of time. James denied the allegation. It was this event that caused the administration to terminate James.
• At this time, in February 2020, the administration also filed a report with Child Protective Services (“CPS”), but according to administrators CPS did not take the report because the incident did not rise to the level of being “reportable.”
With additional allegations of grooming and inappropriate behavior, the school was questioned by investigators as to why they didn’t take action immediately.
“I know what it looks like now. It looks like that to me now, and I fully understand the progression. Part of what we were trying to do is work with a new faculty member and one that we felt had great promise, trying to parse out intention around his contact with students,” said Jay Dorion, the school’s Assistant Head of School. “It didn’t feel always in the moment as if his intentions were what I believe them to be now. I have been working with students in this capacity for 30 years. I don’t take any responsibility more seriously than protecting students. It is not lost on me how it looks. In the moment, I felt we were trying to be very responsive to their concerns, and to a young man who seemed like he was really trying.”
James has since been arrested in Colorado for sexual misconduct at another private school there, with Cate indicating that it did not provide James with an official recommendation. Meanwhile James’ new school told its community that it had talked to two people at Cate.
The music director from 1988 to 1993, Campbell faces allegations from eight former students indicating that he had been seriously involved with a student, as well as inappropriate physical touching with students and making sexual remarks toward students. He also looked the other way on the accused’s relationship with a student.
According to one student that visited his apartment with a friend, Campbell lifted her shirt while they massaged each other, touching the side of her breast. She says she froze and tried to act like it didn’t happen.
Campbell told investigators that it wasn’t uncommon for students to give and receive back or foot massages, while also denying he ever touched the student’s breast. Campbell says he massaged students over their clothing.
One student alleged that Campbell had commented that “women liked the way his beard tickled their inner thighs,” something he didn’t exactly deny.
“I don’t remember ever saying that to a student, but it’s a thought I shared with other friends. But, if I said that to a student, that’s pretty inappropriate. I’m afraid it sounds like me because I know I’ve said it to male friends, but I’m horrified to think I would have ever said that around a girl.”
Lowenstein is a former Cate student that returned to campus in the late 1980s as the school’s Assistant to the Director of Development, also acting as the supervisor in a girls’ dorm.
He is accused of having intercourse with a Cate student, while also making sexual advances toward two recent Cate graduates while off-campus with Andy Campbell.
Former Head of School Scott McLeod and Assistant Head of School Bob Bonning have differing recollections of Lowenstein’s transgressions. One faculty member told investigators that he reported Lowenstein’s behavior to Bonning, who did not remember that conversation. Bonning also didn’t recall talking to Lowenstein about his behavior, although McLeod indicated that Bonning did connect with Lowenstein, where he acknowledged the relationship.
There were no records in Lowenstein’s personnel file, but the investigators still concluded that the school had knowledge of the misconduct and “failed to take action.”
Kusel taught at Cate from 1983-1988, where eight former students and one former faculty member have stepped forward with allegations of sexual activity with students and failing to set proper boundaries, while also exhibiting grooming behaviors.
According to Oppenheimer, “it is uncontested that Kusel had sexual relationships with two Cate graduates. In addition, OIG received a credible report concerning a third Cate graduate with whom Kussel engaged in sexual activity.”
While the investigators did not find the school culpable, it did say that Bonning noted that he “counseled Kusel on his problematic boundaries, but this concern was not only about female students.” McLeod says he learned of the allegations after the fact, but that “Kussel succumbed to the ‘strong temptation’ of being a younger, male teacher was consistent with his lack of response to other situations of faculty-student boundary crossing.”
Kusel told investigators that he believes he was sexually harassed, pointing to female students that dressed in bikinis with signs that spelled out, “We love you, Kus.”
But investigators found the allegations to be believable, with incidents such as Kussel taking a shower while female students visited his residence, an example of boundary crossing.
McLeod taught and coached at Cate from 1965-1975, before taking over as Head of School from 1975-1993. One former student alleges that she was groomed by McLeod during her time there, eventually having a sexual encounter with him after her graduation.
The student alleges that the two began to exchange notes during her junior year, with McLeod’s words eventually becoming intimate and sexual. After the student graduated, McLeod attended a conference near where she was living, with McLeod allegedly getting her a hotel room right next to his. After dinner and drinks, the two went upstairs, where McLeod entered her room and he began kissing her. McLeod would stop when the student expressed discomfort, but the two remained in bed naked the remainder of the night, according to the student.
McLeod denied entering her room or any sexual activity. Investigators indicated that “McLeod’s denial that he had any physical intimacy with (the student) was not persuasive. The act of having dinner with, and then purchasing an adjoining hotel room for a former student is in and of itself suggestive of an intimate relationship.”
The investigation concluded that Cate was not aware of the misconduct.
Phelps taught full-time at Cate from 1983-1985 and then part-time from 1987-1988 and then led Cate’s outdoor program full-time from 1991-1996. One former student reported that Phelps had sexually abused her during her time there in the 1980s.
According to the student, Phelps sexually abused her more than 20 times, both on- and off-campus. Allegedly, the abuse started the final night of her sophomore year when he “pressed and rubbed his erect penis against her genital region for several hours.” The abuse continued through her junior year.
The student retained plenty of documentation, including photos of herself with Phelps.
Cate was made aware of Phelps’ actions in 2019, according to the report.
Phelps originally agreed to aid in the investigation, but was ultimately unresponsive, according to the report.
Investigators say that there is evidence a fellow faculty member was aware of Phelps’ “inappropriate romantic feelings” for the student, but it was not reported to Cate administrators.
Cate and the student have since entered into settlement negotiations.
As part of the note that the Cate Board of Trustees delivered and on the heels of Thacher School also making significant changes due to its own sexual misconduct controversy, Cate introduced 13 new corrective actions it plans to put in place immediately, including the following:
• Commitment to increasing student awareness and comfort with sexual assault reporting procedures to make students more willing and able to share their experiences.
• Increase faculty education around recognizing signs of grooming behavior and boundary-crossing.
• Improve consolidation and coordination of incident reporting between faculty and administrators in investigating allegations of sexual misconduct.
• Establish criteria that would trigger the use of third-party investigators into allegations of sexual misconduct.
• Establish criteria for implementing interim measures upon receipt of allegations of sexual misconduct.
• Restructure communication policies around any incidents of sexual misconduct to both the Cate community and other constituencies to ensure a timely, transparent and victim-centric approach.
• Evaluate the Human Development program to ensure current best practices for student education on healthy relationships, boundaries, and consent.
• Charge the new Human Resources Director with the evaluation of current personnel record keeping protocols.
• Establish a therapy fund to support survivors through reimbursement for therapy related to sexual abuse perpetrated by School employees.
• Create a mechanism for the Board to provide assurance of oversight of incidents of sexual misconduct.
• Develop Board education around school policies and protocols.
• The School has provided the local authorities with the full sexual misconduct investigative report and will continue to cooperate with any future investigations.
• Permanently ban named perpetrators from Cate’s campus and void any public recognition or honors given to these individuals.
While the corrective actions look exhaustive on paper, and the Oppenheimer report was 35 pages in length, some on the @MeTooCate account felt like it hasn’t gone far enough.
“Conveniently, missing from the report is accountability. If the literal leader of the school is not being held accountable, who is?”
Cate Investigation: cate.org/about/investigation/