Cate School

By Stella Haffner   |   January 25, 2022

In October of 2021, universities around the United Kingdom started making headlines after the rise of a threatening new epidemic: injectable date-rape drugs. I remember the buzz at my own university as students called for stricter safety measures in bars and clubs. The fear of this new weapon for sexual assault and the lack of response from venues encouraged one conclusion: If administrators can’t be held directly responsible for what happens on their property, they don’t care.

In our town, we see a similar conclusion brewing as the narrative of Cate School’s on-campus abuse unravels. While much of the dialogue has focused on the sexual misconduct of the 17 faculty members named in the Oppenheimer report, community members and Cate School alumni have increasingly called for a more comprehensive look at misconduct on the Mesa campus, especially student-on-student abuse.

When a person creates a machine but another pulls the lever, who is responsible for the outcome? According to the Cate School administration, not them.

Testimony from alumni has continued to reveal that abuse was not only treated as permissible – with a strong precedent being set by the continued support and employment of predatory faculty members – but also an expected part of the boarding school’s culture. Former and current students address experiences of misogyny within Cate School, citing a chronic problem present from the dress code to fellow students’ slut-shaming. It is this trickle-down effect into disrespectful, misogynistic, coercive, and even violent behavior from Cate students that we discuss today.

Dear Montecito,

Cate School at one point represented a dream for me. I’m from a small town where I attended an even smaller middle school; by the time I was thirteen, I desperately wanted to escape. I was shy, bookish, and felt out of place amongst the kids I’d been with since preschool. I’m not from Southern California, but I have family there, so when I visited Cate it felt like the perfect blend of new and familiar; the eucalyptus trees reminded me of my grandma, but I didn’t recognize a single face.

I was on vacation the week admission decisions were released. I remember refreshing the hotel computer again and again until the notice came through – I was in! Immediately, my heart lifted thinking of boarding a plane and speeding away from my hometown’s suffocating sameness. For me, being thirteen had been marked mostly by loneliness, but when I imagined swapping clothes with my roommate or giggling over shared lunches with teammates, I felt excited for the future, for the first time in years.

Social anxiety made my adjustment to Cate difficult, but I slowly found my place: in the art loft, in the outdoors program, and, eventually, in the dorm rooms of other quiet, artistic students. These new friends and I spent many a night huddled over illicit hot-pots of ramen, watching YouTube or singing show tunes. During the school week, my confidence grew exponentially as I began to be recognized for my writing. I felt safe, comfortable, and at home.

In my junior year, I began dating a fellow classmate – let’s call him W. I was ecstatic, both to finally have a boyfriend and because I really liked him. We studied the same language and were both dedicated students, in a way that initially gave our relationship a delightfully competitive edge. I was happy to be with someone who valued my mind instead of being intimidated. I was also excited to explore physically with him – and terrified of what would happen if I wavered in that enthusiasm.

Since the moment I arrived on campus, I’d heard about other students, mostly girls, being pushed past their limits, controlled by their partner’s threats of slut-shaming rumors, emotionally manipulated by “if you loved me, you would…” or simply physically forced. And with an administration who seemed to only acknowledge our sexuality when they were forbidding us from exploring it, there was no space to openly discuss the line between wanted and unwanted attention. I remember friends telling me partners had forcibly groped them, held them down and taken their stillness for consent; I also remember these friends being afraid to report because they could be disciplined for having been sexually curious in the first place, for having followed their own desire into an interaction turned poisonous. That is, if the administration even acknowledged their complaint as anything more than “hearsay.” Keeping quiet might have protected people who hurt us, but it didn’t feel like the alternative was even an option.

One off-campus night with W., I slipped my hand into his pants for the first time but then stopped, unsure. He didn’t push, but said, “You know, you’re lucky to have a boyfriend who’s okay waiting. A lot of guys wouldn’t be.” Knowing what I knew about other relationships at Cate, I found myself agreeing.

Of course, the “not-like-other-guys” shtick didn’t last, and his frustration escalated quickly. First he would just storm off in a huff, then guilt me for “mistreating” him (a.k.a. not wanting to do much more than kiss). Later, he threatened to punch me if I didn’t acquiesce to his increasingly intense sexual demands. On the worst night, he had me pinned against a wall, breathing down my neck; for years after, I had nightmares about the feeling of a dark room and a sweaty, wiry body pressing into mine. Ultimately, I gave him my virginity to make it stop. But it didn’t.

For years when telling this story, I focused on the gritty details of what he did. I paged obsessively through online articles about verbal and psychological abuse, memorizing the signs so I could make sure to mention all the ways he fit them. I was terrified of not being taken seriously. But that’s the thing about abuse – it makes you doubt yourself on a fundamental level. It’s made me doubt my own memory, the appropriateness of my emotional response, and my ability to ever be in another romantic relationship. W. was incredibly charismatic, a wordsmith with (to my eyes) legions of fans throughout the school, from faculty members to freshman girls who followed him like Beatles groupies. He could explain away any outburst or threat, insinuate that it was my fault and that he was the victim. I accepted the blame for his emotional volatility and kept myself quiet with the at-leasts: At least I’m not the classmate who was recorded during a hookup without her consent. At least we were roughly the same height and age, not a petite freshman and a giant senior. But also: I said yes, but “no” would have meant violence and abandonment. I had come to Cate looking for intimacy and connection, and this was how I’d been taught to get it, to keep it.

I went to college a heartbroken bundle of rage and shame, seeking to once again begin anew. I took classes in geology and modern dance and archeology. After joining a sports team full of funny, ferocious women, I grieved when I learned how many of them had stories just like mine. I had crushes, and I had flashbacks, and I forged friendships with men that taught me how to trust them again. I learned to ski, and I prepared for the outside world.

During the Me Too movement, W. began weighing heavily on me once again. I ended up writing a letter to Ben Williams detailing the abuse and requesting W. not ever be invited back as a convocation speaker or other position that might suggest he is any kind of role model. Ben responded and we had a phone call, during which he was conciliatory, apologetic, and promised that the school would do better. I mentioned not reporting while still a student because I was afraid of being disbelieved or punished, and urged Ben to move the school away from a culture of secrecy and shame. At the time, I was glad for the space he gave me to talk, how many times he asked for my suggestions of how to make things better. Now, given the apparent lack of follow-through, I wonder if he was just pandering to discourage me from making more trouble, as well as asking a survivor to do the school’s work of coming up with a path forward.

My story is a single point among dozens proving Cate has a chronic problem with sexual abuse and assault and yet chose to look the other way every time they were made aware of it. Sure, deep institutional change takes time, but it’s beyond disappointing to hear the administration try to say they didn’t know. We all knew. It was the air we breathed, from the school’s policing of female students’ bodies, to their decision to allow a known faculty predator to remain on campus, to the tacit acknowledgement that certain boys would be allowed to become serial abusers with no repercussions simply because they came from certain families.

Last time I wrote about W., I desperately wanted to be heard by the school, to feel like I had punched a hole in his seemingly impenetrable reputation. Now, four years later, I’ve been through extensive therapy (I am lucky enough to have a family willing and able to pay, which many survivors are not). It has helped me beyond belief. I no longer feel like W. is a ghost lurking in the corners of my life.

I am learning what it means to live life without the burdens I picked up at Cate. I arrived there a kid who loved stories, art, and writing, and I now make a living at the intersection of all three. I hope to be a journalist one day, focusing on labor or environmental stories. For now, my apartment is filled with my own paintings and photographs. I call my Cate friends regularly, marveling at how far we’ve come.

I also feel some sympathy for W. While his actions will never be excusable, I know he was a young man dealing with a great deal of pain and trauma on his own. I hope he has sought help in the years since. I hope to god he isn’t still burying his issues in the bodies of people who love him. In many ways, I feel like the school failed us both.

Recently, I’ve fallen in love again, for the first time since W. I don’t want to treat my current relationship as just a funhouse reflection of my first one – it’s so, so much more, completely on its own terms. Nor do I want to suggest that the only path to healing from trauma is through someone else. But it feels important to share that, for those of us survivors who want it, intimacy without fear or caveats is possible. For me, this relationship has been shot through with equal parts joy for the present and grief for the past, for how much I once thought I had to endure in order to be loved.

I wish I had seen more relationships like this during my time at Cate. I hope the Mesa can one day be a place that teaches us how to get there, instead of funneling us into the jaws of abusers and telling us it’s our fault. I wish uncomplicated love for all of you.


A Cate alum from the 2010s  

From the shores of Scotland, Stella keeps her connection to her home in Montecito by bringing grads of local schools to the pages of the MJ 


You might also be interested in...