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