Cate School
Servons. (Jade Martinez-Pogue / Noozhawk photo)

Substantiated evidence of sexual misconduct by nearly 20 former Cate School teachers and employees stretching back to the 1960s is detailed in a lengthy report produced by a third-party investigation group. 

The 37-page report by Oppenheimer Investigations Group LLP was published on Dec. 13. It came about after former students informed the school of alleged incidents of sexual misconduct involving faculty members.

Cate School is a more than 100-year-old prestigious four-year, co-educational college preparatory boarding school in Carpinteria at which students from all over the country attend, paying about $68,000 in tuition to live on campus, according to the school’s website.

The investigation dived into any sexual misconduct and harassment between faculty and students, whether Cate School administrators knew about such conduct, and if so, what steps the school took to respond.

There were seven individuals named in the report, including former Cate School employee Da’Jon James, who was arrested in Boulder County, Colorado, earlier this year on suspicion of sexual assault on a child and unlawful sexual contact. There were an additional 10 individuals unnamed in the report.

When deciding whom to name directly in the report, investigators considered 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 the individual, the presence of independent corroborating evidence, and ongoing current risk to Cate School students or students elsewhere.

The named respondents include a former head of school, teachers, an assistant director of development and a music director.

The most recent allegation was made against James, who was the director of vocal music at Cate from the summer of 2019 until February 2020.

Several witnesses spoke of James’ “crossing of boundaries,” including physical touching of female students, discussing personal matters, developing intimate friendships with female students, making inappropriate sexual comments, having students in his campus apartment late at night and treating students as peers, according to the report.

The most serious allegations came from a girl identified as Student N, who reported that James would invite her and her friends to watch TV in the evenings, “sitting close to her and touching her thigh” on one occasion, the report said.

Student N also told investigators that James would make comments such as, “If I were in high school, I would want to date you.”

Student N said that she went to James’ room alone one evening in November 2019 to watch TV, and James had spread his legs open so that she could lean back on his chest, “encircled her with his arms around her chest,” began kissing her neck and the top of her head, and felt her chest through her sweatshirt.

‘As James was doing this, he made comments such as, ‘I know this is wrong,’ and, ‘I shouldn’t be doing this. You’re a student,’” the report stated.

As Noozhawk previously reported, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office launched an investigation into James on April 1 after “mandated reporters outside of the school” spoke on behalf of the sexual-assault survivors.

“Detectives have identified several sexual-assault survivors in this case who are both current and former students of Cate School,” sheriff’s spokeswoman Raquel Zick said at the time the investigation was announced.

Lt. Robert Minter told Noozhawk on Wednesday that detectives had submitted all of their reports from the investigation to the District Attorney’s Office for review.

James was arrested in July in Boulder County while he was teaching at the Dawson School, a private school for students in kindergarten through 12th grade, according to the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office. He was taken into custody following allegations of sexual assault involving female students at Dawson School.

James admitted to investigators that he struggled with creating student-teacher boundaries at Cate and had a close bond with female students, describing one student “like a sister” and another as “the gem of the Earth,” the report stated.

“At that time, I knew that the boundaries were kind of gray. … I was in a new job, a new city, and I didn’t have any friends, and she was my best friend and my family,” James told investigators about his relationship with one student.

School administrators were aware of James’ conduct, and he was counseled about his behavior on several occasions, according to the report. The school ultimately terminated James in February 2020 after it was made aware of the allegation that he had placed his hand on a student’s thigh, and at the same time, the administration filed a report with Child Welfare Services.

When asked why James wasn’t terminated earlier, current Assistant Head of School Jay Dorion told investigators: “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, and trying to parse out the intention around his contact with students …

“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.”

Among other named respondents was a former teacher, head of school, coach and dorm head who was with the school from the 1960s to the 1990s. He was accused of grooming a female student during her time at Cate and having a sexual encounter with her after she graduated.

The student also said that she and the man used to exchange letters and notes that became intimate and sexual over time.

The report concluded that the man denied the letters were intimate and denied sexual contact with the student in a hotel room, but investigators found the accounts to be substantiated, as four alumni corroborated the information. 

There was no evidence that school administrators knew of the Cate School employee’s conduct, according to the report.

All associated names and allegations are available in the full report, which can be viewed online here.

One of the more serious allegations was made against a male teacher who taught in the 1980s and led the school outdoor program in the 1990s, according to the report. A girl reported that she was sexually abused by the man more than 20 times when she attended the school in the 1980s.

The former student brought the incident to Cate administration in 2019, and reached a settlement agreement with Cate and the teacher. Previous administrators were not aware of any allegations against him and were not involved in the settlement negotiations, the report found.

Head of School Ben Williams said he accepted the student’s account as credible and wanted to “repair the harm caused” in the manner she saw fit, according to the report.

The allegations were sustained as Student G’s account was corroborated by witness evidence, and they provided documentation that indicated the inappropriate nature of their communications and relationship, according to the report. 

The report determined that 10 unnamed respondents had massaged female students, participated in emotional and homophobic abuse, made sexual comments and demonstrated poor boundaries.

“Unearthing the traumatic events experienced by community members is devastating for all of us, most of all for the survivors,” the Cate School Board of Trustees said in a letter following the release of the report. “In response to this report, we ask that each of us act with the grace, compassion and consideration of privacy that reflects the school’s spirit of care towards all of our community members. Social media’s anonymity and public nature can be particularly harmful in its insensitivities to those we are trying hardest to protect — our students, past and present.”

The school established a therapy fund to assist alumni and former students “desiring reimbursement for therapy related to sexual abuse” during their time at Cate, and engaged the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) to operate the dedicated Cate School Therapy Fund Hotline and provide confidential support and information on how to access the fund, according to the school’s website.

Cate School did not reply to Noozhawk’s request for comment this week. 

Click here to read the full report from Oppenheimer Investigations Group LLP.

Noozhawk staff writer Jade Martinez-Pogue can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Jade Martinez-Pogue

Jade Martinez-Pogue, Noozhawk Staff Writer

Noozhawk staff writer Jade Martinez-Pogue can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.