Woman alleges school coach sexually assaulted her
When Jennifer Christiansen Vurno found herself in distress during her senior year in 1996, she turned to the one person she trusted most: her then-soccer coach and adviser, John Friborg.
But Ms. Vurno, who was 17 at the time, said Mr. Friborg, then 40, didn’t offer her guidance. Instead, she alleges, Mr. Friborg betrayed her trust and sexually assaulted her on multiple occassions throughout her final year at the Thacher School.
Ms. Vurno, now 44 and a resident of Washington state, has named the Thacher School, a private co-ed boarding school in Ojai, and 39 other unnamed defendants affiliated with the school in a lawsuit filed in Ventura County Superior Court earlier this month.
The lawsuit lists seven allegations that include sexual assault; intentional infliction of emotional distress; sexual harassment; negligent hiring, supervision and/or retention; violation of mandatory duty to report suspected child abuse; negilent supervision of a minor; and negligence.
In response to a request for comment on the lawsuit, the school’s director of communications, Carly Rodriguez, told the News-Press in an email that “Thacher is committed to supporting survivors and to the safety and well-being of all its students — past, present, and future. Given that this matter is now the subject of litigation, it would be inappropriate to comment at this time.”
The lawsuit comes nearly a year-and-a-half after the release of an independent report into sexual assault at the Thacher School. The report, which was conducted by Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP, details multiple instances of sexual assault, harrassment and/or inappropriate relations between students and faculty at the school over several decades.
The findings of the 2021 report also illustrate a campus culture that encouraged uncommonly close relationships between students and faculty at Thacher, with faculty even having the ability to summon students to their private on-campus residences.
According to Ms. Vurno, who enrolled at Thacher in 1992 at the age of 14, this environment was so ingrained in the Thacher experience that such close relations were considered by students to be normal and, in many cases, desirable.
“As a student it was mesmerizing — it was like this family that you were brought into, and you were rewarded for building close relationships with faculty,” Ms. Vurno told the News-Press. “There were teachers who had clear boundaries, and there were the teachers who completely blurred them with nicknames, and inviting you over and taking you individually out to meals, and taking you in their cars to town or back.”
“And it just became normal, we didn’t question (it) — if you saw any of that, it was just what happened.”
It was this in the context of this environment that Ms. Vurno developed a close relationship with Mr. Friborg, whom she “believed and entrusted” more than anyone else at the school, and viewed as a figure who had her best interests at heart — someone she thought she could turn to when she needed help.
“In my senior year, at a most desperate and struggling moment, I went to John Friborg to seek help,” Ms. Vurno said during a Wednesday news conference. “I looked at him for guidance and care, trusting completely in his ability to help and support me — but this was not the case.”
“He took this 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.”
Ms. Vurno is not the only one who claims to have undergone similar experiences with Mr. Friborg.
The 2021 report detailed “firsthand reports of sexual misconduct by Friborg involving four then-current students and two students who had graduated less than a year before the misconduct” in addition to “two witnesses who reported that Friborg made unwanted sexual advances on them during their five-year reunions.”
Mr. Friborg allegedly cultivated what the report called a “cult-like atmosphere” at the private boarding school, especially among soccer players, with witnesses telling investigators that “Friborg was known to have favorites among the female players, whom students referred to as ‘Fri’s girls.’”
The report also alleged that when Mr. Friborg was hired in 1987, administrators and faculty at Thacher were aware of the fact that he had been asked to leave a previous position at the Governor’s Academy — a private boarding school in Byfield, Mass. — for having an inappropriate relationship with a female soccer player.
“I never comprehended or could even conceive that they had hired him with any sort of suspicion,” Ms. Vurno told the News-Press while recounting her reaction to reading the report. “I felt like I was offered up to this person. I came into that school, and they knew I was going to be a soccer player. They knew who they were giving me to.”
Mr. Friborg resigned from Thacher in 1997 after three students came to administrators with similar experiences to those described by Ms. Vurno. However, the 2021 report notes that witnesses “recalled seeing Friborg on campus on more than one occasion after his resignation,” as well as at least one off-campus Thacher soccer game.
Ms. Vurno has decided to pursue the case publicly, rather than anonymously, in order to give a voice to those who are in or have been in similar situations to what she’s described.
“Tell somebody that you trust, and keep telling and keep seeking and keep sharing because you’re not alone,” Ms. Vurno advised. “Stepping out into the truth of what happened really helps free you from the shame that can so often keep survivors hidden.”