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After stalled progress in Sonoma Academy response to teacher misconduct, a new lawsuit is filed

What you need to know about the Sonoma Academy scandal

Sonoma Academy, an elite college-prep school nestled at the base of Taylor Mountain in Santa Rosa, was rocked in June 2021 after The Press Democrat reported stories from seven female graduates detailing boundary-crossing behavior by a longtime teacher at the school, Marco Morrone.

Three of the women's reports to Tucker Foehl, the head of school of Sonoma Academy since June 2020, had led to Morrone's termination from the school in October 2020. But Foehl had not informed the Sonoma Academy community or the broader public about the circumstances behind Morrone's departure, and the women feared Morrone would find other employment working with minors without greater transparency.

Ten days after The Press Democrat's first story, Sonoma Academy announced it was launching a comprehensive investigation into Morrone's conduct, including why he remained at the school after being disciplined in 2007 and amid multiple complaints from students and alums from 2007 to 2020. It hired New York firm Debevoise and Plimpton to conduct the investigation.

In September, Sonoma Academy announced it was establishing a fund to provide students or alumni affected by teacher misconduct with reimbursement for therapy costs. The fund was established in partnership with RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, to help students and alums access mental health resources.

On Nov. 29, Sonoma Academy published the full report from Debevoise and Plimpton. Its findings were explosive: Investigators had identified 34 female students who were subjected to misconduct by Morrone, and that two former employees had sexually abused students in the early 2000s. No one at Sonoma Academy had ever made a report to law enforcement, even in situations when the law required it or legal counsel recommended it.

Throughout the course of the investigation, founding head of school Janet Durgin came under scrutiny for her handling of reports about Morrone. Investigators found she did not pass on information about past complaints about Morrone to the board of trustees and did not alert law enforcement.

Durgin apologized for "missteps" during her tenure, and while she disputed some of the investigator's findings, she took responsibility for "the ultimate outcomes."

By Nov. 30, the Santa Rosa Police Department confirmed it was investigating several reports of suspected child sex abuse “associated with staff at Sonoma Academy."

On Dec. 1, an anonymous graduate filed the first lawsuit against Sonoma Academy, Durgin and Morrone, claiming she experienced sexual abuse and harassment in the educational setting, sexual battery, abuse and gender violence, among other civil rights violations.

Also on Dec. 1, Ellie Dwight, founding assistant head of school at Sonoma Academy and also a person of focus in the investigative report for her actions in response to reports of teacher misconduct, resigned from her position. “Young people — and our school — have been hurt on my watch and that cannot be excused," she said. "Sorry is not strong enough.”

On Dec. 7, The Press Democrat reported Morrone had been able to work for six weeks as a substitute teacher at Casa Grande High School in Petaluma, six months after being dismissed from Sonoma Academy for inappropriate conduct with students. No one from Sonoma Academy notified the Sonoma County Office of Education, which conducts background checks on substitute candidates, of the reasons behind Morrone's dismissal.

Sonoma Academy coverage

To read more stories and see the PD’s complete coverage, visit: pressdemocrat.com/SonomaAcademy.

If you want to share your story

The Press Democrat continues to cover allegations of student abuse and staff misconduct at Sonoma Academy.

Here is how to contact our reporters:

Kaylee Tornay: 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay

Martin Espinoza: 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno

Marisa Endicott: 707-521-5470 or marisa.endicott@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @InYourCornerTPD

Almost a year to the day that news broke of a sexual harassment scandal involving a teacher at the elite Sonoma Academy prep school, two attorneys have filed a class action suit seeking tuition refunds for alums who felt they were misled about their safety.

The suit holds that the school was not transparent about legitimate concerns over student well-being while advertising a safe, supportive and prestigious environment.

The suit, filed in Sonoma County Superior Court, seeks to enable alums to demand restitution in the form of refunded tuition, said San Diego-based attorney Alex Schack, who filed the suit with Santa Rosa attorney Jack Weaver.

Tuition is set at $49,900 for the next school year.

“They concealed (misconduct by a former teacher) for 18 years and held themselves out to be this premium school, yet covered up everything that was happening,” Schack said.

Sonoma Academy officials did not respond to a request for comment about the suit.

Schack’s firm represented 702 victims in a lawsuit against the University of Southern California over years of abuse by longtime student health center gynecologist Dr. George Tyndall.

The $842 million settlement in the USC case is the largest single sexual abuse settlement in U.S. history, according to the Schack Law Group.

Schack and Weaver also represent two Sonoma Academy graduates in separate lawsuits against the school, its founding Head of School Janet Durgin and Marco Morrone, the dismissed teacher.

The class-action suit comes a little over a year after Sonoma Academy graduates Clio Wilde, Linnet Vacha and five fellow graduates shared their accounts of sexual harassment by Morrone, a longtime teacher who repeatedly crossed physical and emotional boundaries with them when they were students.

The women, who are not part of the class-action suit and have preferred to seek reconciliation outside the courts, had brought their concerns to Sonoma Academy in June 2020, which led to Morrone’s quiet firing four months later, in October.

Following a Press Democrat investigation that published June 9, 2021, campus officials launched a broad inquiry into staff misconduct, revealing a wider pattern of student abuse and mistreatment.

Investigators determined Morrone, a former humanities teacher, had behaved inappropriately with at least 34 students over 18 years. They also found that other former teachers had sexually abused three other students in 2003 and 2004.

Those revelations came as the seven women, who had organized themselves into an advocacy group called The Athena Project, worked with the school to establish a fund for therapy costs for the victims, and led support sessions for graduates.

“It’s been a hard year,” Wilde told The Press Democrat in a recent interview.

The flood of text messages, phone calls and emails from other alums rocked by the scandal has ebbed since December, but, so has progress toward the Athena Project’s goals and benchmarks put down by the school.

Despite ongoing mediation talks with Sonoma Academy, the Athena Project has been unable to achieve its main goal: a process for victims to receive compensation.

The school’s insurance company has a say in how that process would work, and the school has not said it has approval, according to Wilde, a 2011 graduate. Communication from the school has been scarce since the start of this year, they said.

“I think we’ve made a lot of progress,” Wilde said. “And I also have felt really frustrated that there hasn’t been more movement in the last six months or so.”

Sonoma Academy leadership has been tight-lipped about changes sought by the graduates and recommendations investigators made in their report.

Alums and staff ― and even some of the school’s founders in a new open letter ― have raised concerns about the board’s infrequent communication and lack of detail on the progress of implementing safety recommendations.

“It’s frustrating,” said Vacha, one of the graduates. “I feel this urge to do more, to get answers, to make sure students are supported and faculty are getting ongoing training.”

But between juggling jobs and supporting other alums, she’s not sure how much more her group can push.

“Realistically, we have our hands full.”

Silence from board of trustees

One of the Bay Area’s most exclusive prep schools, Sonoma Academy was founded in 2001 by prominent North Bay residents who wanted an independent secondary school where students of the Sonoma Country Day School and others could continue their private education. The school’s state-of-the-art campus was built for $35 million in 2008 in the shadow of Taylor Mountain.

Sonoma County winery owners, prominent attorneys and business people, as well as high-profile alums, fill out its 15-member board of trustees.

The Press Democrat made three attempts to contact each trustee over the past six months to comment on the reconciliation process and measures to train employees and shore up safeguards.

The outreach included phone calls and emails in the final weeks of December, another round of emails in February and letters mailed to each trustee in April.

None of the trustees responded, save for one board member who declined to speak when reached by phone.

Two experts on nonprofit governance said board silence in crisis situations is typical.

“That you haven’t received response from your probe of board members is not unusual and is typically the norm,” said Robert Ashcraft, executive director of the Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation at Arizona State University.

“However, it is good practice for an inquiry like yours to be responded to within a reasonable period of time by someone designated in official capacity to speak for the organization,” he said in an email.

Lily Thompson, Sonoma Academy’s marketing and communications director, says she is that designated person.

She intervened on behalf of the board after two of the rounds of phone calls and letters from The Press Democrat.

“As I have let you know repeatedly, I am the only person authorized to act as a spokesperson for the school, which includes as a spokesperson for the Board,” Thompson wrote in an April 4 email. “Should you have specific questions, as always, you may please direct them to me and we will consider them.”

The Press Democrat sent Thompson a list of 11 detailed questions for the board on May 30. She declined to answer them.

“We have been in communication with our community throughout the year and our emails on these matters represent our complete statements,” Thompson responded on June 2.

A desire for dialogue

Since The Press Democrat’s first story revealing teacher misconduct at Sonoma Academy, the school has released several written statements from Board Chair Tory Nosler and Head of School Tucker Foehl addressing the scandal. Some of those statements were signed by the board.

The latest statement to students, parents and graduates came May 10. In it, Nosler and Foehl gave brief updates about the work of a safety committee that was established in December; the therapy fund it created in partnership with RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network; and its engagement with an organization called See Change, whose services it engaged as part of “an intensive exploration and investigation into Sonoma Academy’s culture,” according to the statement.

The safety committee, Nosler and Foehl wrote, “has met on a regular basis and developed policies for its oversight of the school's student safety program including SA's policies and procedures related to the hiring and training of personnel, mandated reporting, processing student safety complaints, and records retention.”

Nosler and Foehl said they would provide quarterly updates about their progress.

Vacha, a 2008 graduate, called the unwillingness to answer questions “puzzling.”

“I just wonder why they haven’t done more that they want to speak publicly about,” she said. “There are so many areas and opportunities for improvement, for acting on the values that we were told were the community values (of Sonoma Academy).

“It feels as though it confirms the most negative perspectives on the school, which is just baffling and maddening to me,” she said.

The communication vacuum has also been a concern on campus, a school staff member said.

The staff member, who asked that their name not be published because administration has directed staff not to speak to reporters, described a desire for more information among staff and faculty.

“The only time we’ve gotten information from administration is when a Press Democrat article is about to come out, or has recently come out, and there’s a need to beat you to the punch,” the staff member said.

Staff and faculty want to know about progress on implementing recommendations from See Change and from Debevoise and Plimpton, the New York-based law firm that conducted the investigation in 2021, the staff member said.

See Change’s recommendations include more training on proper boundaries with students, and forming a committee to audit compliance.

“We’ve tightened how we communicate and how often and (are) making sure we have a unified message across all of our platforms, but as you saw, they don’t really say much,” the staff member said. “They say the same thing over and over so it’s cohesive, but it doesn’t seem to have a lot of transparency.”

Faculty and staff are still confused about reporting practices in cases of potential misconduct, the staff member said, including whether they ought to use the LiveSafe reporting platform established by Sonoma Academy last summer, or go directly to Foehl. He has been Head of School since June 2020.

Further complicating matters is the fact that the assistant head of school post, the second in command under Foehl, has been open since January, when Ellie Dwight, a founding administrator, resigned in the wake of the Debevoise report. Her duties were divided among several other administrators through the end of the school year, the staff member said, leaving faculty unsure of where to turn with their questions.

“The most helpful thing for a lot of our (staff and faculty) would be a clear timeline on the changes we’re going to make,” the staff member said. “We understand things take a while, but put a (professional development session) on the calendar and keep it there. Don’t push it again.”

Lawsuits new and old

Friday’s lawsuit is one of several involving student abuse at Sonoma Academy.

One case Schack and Weaver filed in December has been resolved, Schack said, though he declined to offer any details about the nature of the resolution.

Another lawsuit, filed in Sonoma County Superior Court on Dec. 15, is ongoing and has a trial date of April 28, 2023.

In both cases, the plaintiffs sought $2 million, Schack said.

Schack said he spoke to experts on sexual harassment and education — those with “experience on how to assess damages” — before arriving at the decision to pursue a class action lawsuit.

One question posed by that group of advisers: “If you knew your child was going to go to this school where there was pervasive sexual and gender discrimination how much would you pay?’”

“We all paused for a second and said, ‘I wouldn’t send them there, so the answer is zero,’” Schack said.

That’s how they arrived at class-action suit seeking restitution through tuition reimbursement, he said.

Police investigating criminal reports

The first reports to law enforcement about alleged sex crimes involving former Sonoma Academy staff began surfacing in the fall of 2021, as Debevoise contacted more graduates and some of them began making use of the RAINN therapy fund.

A 2007 graduate who told The Press Democrat her story of sexual abuse by a onetime film teacher at the school, Adrian Belic, made a report to Santa Rosa police in December, after her story ran in the newspaper.

The graduate, whom The Press Democrat is not naming because she is a survivor of sexual abuse, said she has not received an update since.

Santa Rosa Police spokesman Sgt. Chris Mahurin said he could not provide information on ongoing investigations. He said investigators have not forwarded any cases affiliated with former Sonoma Academy employees to the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office.

“They’re still all open and active cases,” Mahurin said. “In sexual assault investigations, it’s common for victims to want to take their time ... and that can make them more lengthy.”

“Sexual assault cases are difficult to investigate,” he said. “There’s often no video or photo evidence, or physical evidence in a late report, either, so it does take more time to build those cases.”

Resources to combat sexual abuse, support survivors

Verity: Sonoma County’s rape, crisis and trauma center, www.ourverity.org, 707-545-7273

Sonoma County Family Justice Center: www.fjcsc.org, 707-565-8255

ValorUS: formerly California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, is a statewide coalition of rape crisis centers committed to ending sexual violence and has a California Rape Crisis Center Directory, www.valor.us

Redwood Empire Chapter of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists: www.recamft.org

National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-4673, online.rainn.org

The Sonoma Academy graduate who reported abuse by Belic, the film teacher, said making her report to police was an important step for her, but it has taken a toll.

“Part of me is like that teenage girl who wasn’t listened to or seen or protected and now I’m an adult and I’ve put it out there in such a big way — who he is and what he has done — and nothing happened,” she said. “There’s just a lot of self doubt.”

She’s been in therapy to cope with the mental and physical stress of speaking out. The therapy fund Sonoma Academy established with RAINN last year is helping her.

“That is the most incredible thing,” she said. “I don’t have to worry about, ‘Am I going to be able to afford this?’”

Foehl and Nosler in their May 10 letter to the Sonoma Academy community said 26 graduates have accessed the fund to cover therapy costs.

Reconciliation far off

Sonoma Academy graduates and students interviewed by The Press Democrat in recent months say they are eager to contribute to the school’s efforts to heal.

Wilde is one of the members of the Athena Project who spends the most time in touch with graduates from many classes. Some have shared traumatic experiences not captured in the Debevoise report, she said.

“As someone who communicates pretty regularly with people outside of (the Athena Project), it’s really hard to tell people just to hang tight, to wait and see and trust us,” Wilde said.

She and Vacha expressed frustration that Sonoma Academy canceled in-person alum listening sessions that were to be held in San Francisco, Los Angeles and on the East Coast.

Only one of the listening sessions actually happened, at the Sonoma Academy campus.

The sessions were canceled because of COVID, Vacha said. But that explanation hasn’t satisfied many people, she said.

“I don’t think people feel they’re being heard or their concerns are being addressed,” Vacha said. “The listening sessions seemed like a good step in that direction, but that’s been on hold for six months now, without a clear explanation.”

The Sonoma Academy staff member, too, said students are searching for ways they can contribute.

“They know not to look to me for answers, but they have asked, ‘When are we going to hear more about this, is someone going to talk to us about it?’” the staff member said. “How can we help in this situation?”

The staff member said their love for Sonoma Academy makes it that much harder to see the school community in pain over the past year.

“At its core, it’s a great school and the kids we have and the programs we’re able to offer and the teachers we have, some are absolutely incredible, passionate teachers.”

“We do have wonderful people and it’s just hard.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay.

What you need to know about the Sonoma Academy scandal

Sonoma Academy, an elite college-prep school nestled at the base of Taylor Mountain in Santa Rosa, was rocked in June 2021 after The Press Democrat reported stories from seven female graduates detailing boundary-crossing behavior by a longtime teacher at the school, Marco Morrone.

Three of the women's reports to Tucker Foehl, the head of school of Sonoma Academy since June 2020, had led to Morrone's termination from the school in October 2020. But Foehl had not informed the Sonoma Academy community or the broader public about the circumstances behind Morrone's departure, and the women feared Morrone would find other employment working with minors without greater transparency.

Ten days after The Press Democrat's first story, Sonoma Academy announced it was launching a comprehensive investigation into Morrone's conduct, including why he remained at the school after being disciplined in 2007 and amid multiple complaints from students and alums from 2007 to 2020. It hired New York firm Debevoise and Plimpton to conduct the investigation.

In September, Sonoma Academy announced it was establishing a fund to provide students or alumni affected by teacher misconduct with reimbursement for therapy costs. The fund was established in partnership with RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, to help students and alums access mental health resources.

On Nov. 29, Sonoma Academy published the full report from Debevoise and Plimpton. Its findings were explosive: Investigators had identified 34 female students who were subjected to misconduct by Morrone, and that two former employees had sexually abused students in the early 2000s. No one at Sonoma Academy had ever made a report to law enforcement, even in situations when the law required it or legal counsel recommended it.

Throughout the course of the investigation, founding head of school Janet Durgin came under scrutiny for her handling of reports about Morrone. Investigators found she did not pass on information about past complaints about Morrone to the board of trustees and did not alert law enforcement.

Durgin apologized for "missteps" during her tenure, and while she disputed some of the investigator's findings, she took responsibility for "the ultimate outcomes."

By Nov. 30, the Santa Rosa Police Department confirmed it was investigating several reports of suspected child sex abuse “associated with staff at Sonoma Academy."

On Dec. 1, an anonymous graduate filed the first lawsuit against Sonoma Academy, Durgin and Morrone, claiming she experienced sexual abuse and harassment in the educational setting, sexual battery, abuse and gender violence, among other civil rights violations.

Also on Dec. 1, Ellie Dwight, founding assistant head of school at Sonoma Academy and also a person of focus in the investigative report for her actions in response to reports of teacher misconduct, resigned from her position. “Young people — and our school — have been hurt on my watch and that cannot be excused," she said. "Sorry is not strong enough.”

On Dec. 7, The Press Democrat reported Morrone had been able to work for six weeks as a substitute teacher at Casa Grande High School in Petaluma, six months after being dismissed from Sonoma Academy for inappropriate conduct with students. No one from Sonoma Academy notified the Sonoma County Office of Education, which conducts background checks on substitute candidates, of the reasons behind Morrone's dismissal.

Sonoma Academy coverage

To read more stories and see the PD’s complete coverage, visit: pressdemocrat.com/SonomaAcademy.

If you want to share your story

The Press Democrat continues to cover allegations of student abuse and staff misconduct at Sonoma Academy.

Here is how to contact our reporters:

Kaylee Tornay: 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay

Martin Espinoza: 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno

Marisa Endicott: 707-521-5470 or marisa.endicott@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @InYourCornerTPD

Kaylee Tornay

Education, The Press Democrat

Learning is a transformative experience. Beyond that, it’s a right, under the law, for every child in this country. But we also look to local schools to do much more than teach children; they are tasked with feeding them, socializing them and offering skills in leadership and civics. My job is to help you make sense of K-12 education in Sonoma County and beyond.  

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