Former Student Files Lawsuit over Alleged Sexual Abuse at Thacher School

“I’m here because I’m a victim survivor of child sexual assault perpetrated on the Thacher School campus by my high school soccer coach, teacher, college advisor, John Friborg,” said Jennifer Christiansen Vurno, a former student at the elite Ojai boarding school, at a news conference on November 30. “I have suffered every day since the day John Friborg first sexually assaulted me on the Thacher campus. I have never been the same.”

Long before allegations detailing decades of sexual abuse at Thacher School were revealed in a report released last year, Vurno was a varsity soccer player in her senior year at Thacher in 1996. Vurno, now 44 years old and living in Washington, is suing the school for “[failing] to protect her from sexual abuse and harassment,” alleging that John Friborg groped her multiple times, kissed her, and digitally penetrated her when she was 17 on campus, both in his home and his vehicle. The civil complaint, filed in Ventura County Superior Court, asks for a jury trial, appropriate statutory damages, and costs.

The complaint alleges that before Vurno enrolled at Thacher School in 1992, the school hired Friborg despite the administration, including the headmaster, having known that he had an inappropriate relationship with a female student at the Massachusetts private school where he previously worked as a teacher and soccer coach. She said that Friborg had even admitted “to a school administrator that he had dated a female high school soccer player at his previous high school, the Governor’s Academy.”

During her first three years at Thacher, Vurno explained she had come to trust the faculty at the prestigious boarding school, which parents today pay nearly $65,000 a year for their children to attend. Vurno said the reason she did not come forward initially was because she was “embarrassed and fearful” of what would happen if she did report the abuse; however, in the aftermath of a 2021 report commissioned by the school revealing numerous sexual misconduct allegations at Thacher, she was motivated to come forward.

“In my senior year, at a most desperate and struggling moment, I went to John Friborg to seek help,” Vurno said, close to tears as she spoke. “I looked to him for guidance and care, trusting completely in his ability to help and support me. But this was not the case. He took the trust and belief and used it against me as a tool to perpetrate the most heinous crime of sexual violence against my 17-year-old self.”

As alleged in the complaint, Vurno is not the only student to have been assaulted by Friborg, nor is Friborg the only perpetrator named among Thacher’s former faculty. Her lawsuit against Thacher is at least the second since the school commissioned and released a 91-page report in 2021 that identified six alleged perpetrators and multiple victims of sexual misconduct at the school, including Vurno, as well as efforts by the former administration to cover up the complaints and blame the teenage victims.

“The problems caused by John Friborg’s sexual assaults of me were compounded by the silence and inaction of the school,” Vurno said. “I lost the sense that I could expect I would be protected from harm…He was protected, and I was abandoned, cast aside. The school’s silence condoned his actions and ignored the existence of the devastating pain and destruction left upon me and the other victims.”

Several other complaints against Friborg surfaced in 1997, following which Friborg resigned, and, according to Vurno’s attorney, Paul Mones, “To the best of our knowledge, no further investigation was done.”

Following the report’s release in June 2021, the Ventura County Reporter relayed that “Friborg worked at two other schools after Thacher,” and, in a letter to investigators, “Friborg stated he regrets his ‘transgression’ and feels ‘deep shame and regret … I have been very happily married for over 22 years, have a daughter in college, and live now in a quiet, simple retirement where the garden or a walk is generally the most exciting part of my days. That is enough.’”

The 2021 report, compiled by lawyers from the Los Angeles law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson, found that Friborg targeted three other student victims at Thacher, in addition to Vurno, having allegedly groomed the students, massaged them, and molested them.

According to the report, former Thacher head Michael Mulligan, who led the school from 1992 to 2018, worked with Friborg at the Governor’s Academy and reported to the headmaster of the academy that Friborg was having an inappropriate relationship with a senior on the girls’ soccer team.

“The June 2021 report also stated that Mulligan discovered the relationship when he noticed Friborg and the senior girls spending too much time together,” Mones said. “Mr. Friborg was asked to leave the Governor’s Academy as a result of the report by Mr. Mulligan.”

In an interview for the report, Mulligan stated that he supported Friborg’s hiring at Thacher, even though he knew of his prior history, but, in hindsight, he now “wishes he had worked to prevent the hiring and very much regrets that he did not do so.” According to the report, Mulligan said that it was inconceivable to him that Friborg would again “make the same mistake that he had made before.”

View news article Opens in a new window