Sexual abuse allegations at elite Carpinteria boarding school prompt sheriff’s investigation

Law enforcement authorities are investigating reports of sexual abuse and misconduct by a former employee at the elite Cate School in Carpinteria, months after campus officials told alumni that they launched their own internal look into potential abuse that could date back decades.

The investigation into allegations at the private boarding high school began on April 1, after the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office received a report from a mandated reporter outside of the school, said Raquel Zick, a public information officer with the sheriff’s office. The alleged abuse occurred while the suspect was employed at the school and on school property, authorities said.

Investigators have identified “several sexual assault survivors in this case who are both current and former students of Cate School,” according to a sheriff’s office statement. Officials did not say when the alleged abuse occurred, and the identity of the person who reported the allegations is protected under state law.

In a statement to the campus community that was shared with The Times, Head of School Ben Williams said Cate is “cooperating with an investigation by local law enforcement into alleged sexual misconduct by a former employee, who worked at Cate School for six months, and whose employment was terminated in February of 2020.” The school said it also alerted Child Protective Services to potential misconduct by the same employee.

“Per the request of the Sheriff’s Department, we are not sharing the suspect’s name in order to protect the integrity of the pending criminal investigation,” Williams wrote.

On June 24 — one week after the Thacher School in Ojai released an extraordinary 91-page report detailing sexual misconduct allegations at the boarding school — sheriff’s detectives and investigators from the Santa Barbara County district attorney’s office served search warrants at the Cate campus to gather potential evidence.

The school, with a $111-million endowment, is among more than 85 schools with boarding facilities in California. With a boarding tuition of $68,150, its 150-acre campus is minutes away from Santa Barbara and boasts scenic views from its mesa perch.

Sheriff’s detectives are working with Cate School and its legal representatives to contact named and unnamed sexual assault survivors.

“We really want to emphasize that we are seeking additional survivors as well as witnesses for any sexual misconduct that has occurred at Cate School,” Zick said.

The sheriff’s investigation comes months after Cate said it had launched its own internal investigation. In an email obtained by The Times from two alumni, school officials said in October they had learned of allegations of “sexual misconduct involving faculty members and students that occurred several decades ago.”

School officials said in the email they had retained an independent investigator and asked alumni to reach out if they had experienced inappropriate conduct from any faculty or staff member while at the school.

Amy Oppenheimer, whose firm is conducting the schools’ investigation, declined to discuss the case.

Two alumnae had come forward to share “mistreatment by Cate faculty” during their time as students in the 1980s and early ‘90s, according to the email, signed by Williams; Wyatt Gruber, president of the Board of Trustees; and Monique Parsons, the board chair.

“In both cases, we conducted investigations and took action with respect to the former Cate faculty members who engaged in the misconduct and in acknowledgment of the alumnae who came forward to detail their experiences and to discuss the impacts of surviving abuse,” officials said in the email.

Wendy Ward Hoffer, who graduated from Cate in 1987, said she came forward to school officials. In an interview with The Times, she detailed grooming by a teacher that took place during her sophomore year.

On the last day of the school year, Ward Hoffer alleges the teacher invited her over to his apartment where he kissed her aggressively, touched her under her clothes and rolled over on top of her.

“It was an experience of being crushed under him and feeling really trapped and frozen,” she said.

Although the teacher left the school after that year, she said, he continued to return to campus and attended a class camping trip where he continued to abuse her, she said.

“What were these adults doing? They should have been paying attention,” she said. “They really had their heads in the sand and let me be preyed upon.”

When her own daughter reached high school age, Ward Hoffer decided to break her silence.

In a 12-page letter sent to the school in December 2019, Ward Hoffer’s lawyer, Eric MacLeish, detailed the allegations of abuse as part of a civil claim — a precursor to a lawsuit — against Cate. A California law that took effect in 2020 opened a three-year window for victims to file civil claims that might have expired because of the statute of limitations.

“No 15-year-old should ever have to be in such a position with their teacher,” the letter stated.

The claim was resolved with Cate in February 2020, although Ward Hoffer said she could not share the details. Throughout conversations with Cate, Ward Hoffer and MacLeish said they pushed for an investigation.

Ward Hoffer said she has followed the reports of decades of alleged sex abuse at Thacher School, which posted its investigation information on the school’s website.

“I realize people have been critical of Thacher’s work, but in my observation they seem to have really owned their history in a way that Cate just hasn’t,” Ward Hoffer said. “I feel like the school is trying to cover it up … And in the meanwhile, they are putting kids at risk.”

In the case of Thacher, pressure for an investigation sprang from a social media account that detailed anonymous allegations of sexual misconduct in a manner similar to how student-run Instagram accounts launched across the county after the death of George Floyd shared incidents of campus racism. Current and former students at Cate drew inspiration from the strategy.

In March 2021, an Instagram account was launched as “a safe space for the people of Cate — past and present — to share their experiences with misogyny.” The original account has since deleted its posts, which former and current students said detailed allegations of abuse.

In April, Cate officials sent an update on the investigation stating that Oppenheimer expected to deliver a report in early June, according to the email obtained by The Times. 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.

Cate officials did not comment on the emails or the status of the investigation.

By June, a new Instagram account was created that includes anonymous allegations of sexual misconduct and captures anonymous yet growing frustration over the school’s handling of its internal investigation.

Cate, founded in 1910, enrolls 300 students, 78% of whom are boarding school students. The cost of tuition for a day student is $53,750.

The school boasts student opportunities to surf, hike, bike and travel to national parks including Sequoia and Yosemite. Not unlike the Thacher School, Cate describes itself as a close-knit community where faculty often live on campus.

“Through commitment, scholarship, companionship, and service, each member of the Cate community contributes to what our founder called ‘… the spirit of this place … all compounded of beauty and virtue, quiet study, vigorous play, and hard work,’” the school’s mission statement reads.

Allegations at Thacher shook the community, even as alums and students described many stories of misconduct as longtime open secrets on the campus, according to its internal report by the Los Angeles law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson. Ventura County law enforcement authorities are reviewing the incidents alleged in the report.

Whether or not authorities determine if an allegation constitutes a crime, Thacher and Cate could face lawsuits after the 2020 law expanded the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse reports.

Anyone with information related to the Cate School investigation is asked to contact Det. Sgt. Mark Valencia at (805) 681-4150.

If you or someone you know needs assistance, you can reach RAINN’s sexual assault hotline at (800) 656-4673 or visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.



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