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Fired Sonoma Academy teacher subbed at Casa Grande High School while private school stayed silent on misconduct findings

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If you want to share your story

Press Democrat reporters Kaylee Tornay and Martin Espinoza are continuing to cover alumni allegations of sexual harassment, abuse and misconduct at Sonoma Academy and claims the school failed to safeguard students.

Here is how to contact them:

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

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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

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Sonoma Academy coverage

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

Six months after Marco Morrone was fired from Sonoma Academy for repeated inappropriate conduct with students, he re-entered the classroom as a substitute teacher at Casa Grande High School, The Press Democrat has learned.

Morrone, 51, worked for six weeks covering for an English and humanities teacher at the Petaluma high school during the district’s return to hybrid learning, from April 19 through May 28, said Matthew Harris, superintendent of Petaluma City Schools.

Neither the school district nor the Sonoma County Office of Education, which conducts background checks on substitutes, were aware of the reasons behind Morrone’s October 2020 departure from Sonoma Academy, the elite Santa Rosa college-prep school where he worked as a humanities teacher for 18 years, officials said.

No one from Sonoma Academy notified the county education office that Morrone was fired after a school investigation last year, officials said.

That investigation found he had “engaged in conduct that violated appropriate boundaries with students” over at least six years, according to Head of School Tucker Foehl. His June 9 announcement to students, parents and graduates marked the school’s first public acknowledgment of Morrone’s firing and the findings that led to it.

The Sonoma Academy in Santa Rosa on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)
The Sonoma Academy in Santa Rosa on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

Lack of notice ‘troubling’

News broke of the allegations against Morrone the same day, when The Press Democrat published its first story in an ongoing investigation into staff misconduct and institutional failures to protect students at Sonoma Academy.

The revelations sent shock waves through the circle of local public school and district administrators, who said this week they were kept in the dark by Sonoma Academy.

John Laughlin, the associate superintendent of human resources at the county Office of Education, said his department takes seriously all reports of potential misconduct or criminal activity by any educator trying to get substitute work through their central database.

Among public schools, “there’s open communication,” about terminations and misconduct, Laughlin said.

That Sonoma Academy did not notify its public school counterparts of the misconduct it deemed grounds for Morrone’s termination was “troubling,” Laughlin said.

Morrone resigned as a substitute on June 9, and Petaluma City Schools began its own investigation, which “found zero reports of anything abnormal in the classroom,” while he was a teacher at Casa Grande High, Harris said.

Casa Grande High School in Petaluma, Calif., on Tuesday, December 7, 2021.(Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)
Casa Grande High School in Petaluma, Calif., on Tuesday, December 7, 2021.(Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)

The lapses at Sonoma Academy were confirmed in wider scope by another school-commissioned investigation and 49-page report released Nov. 29. Investigators concluded that inaction by administrators allowed Morrone’s misconduct, including inappropriate touching and grooming for sexual contact, to continue for years. It affected at least 34 students over his tenure, investigators found, including one girl who had sexual interactions with him after she graduated.

Administrators also concealed complaints about sexual abuse of three other students by two other staff members from law enforcement and the school’s own board of trustees.

The reports of abuse date to 2003 and 2004, involving an assistant girls soccer coach and a onetime filmmaking instructor. Sonoma Academy officials deemed them credible. The coach, Shannon Rake, a leading goal scorer in her years at Sonoma State University, was fired and film teacher, Adrian Belic, an Oscar-nominated documentarian, was not brought back.

But their subsequent employers were not notified of the findings until the school was underway with its latest investigation 17 years later, according to the Sonoma Academy report released last week. Rake, 42, the former soccer coach, went on to work in a job with Sports City, the indoor soccer operator for children and adult players.

Faculty speaker Marco Morrone, who was chosen by the senior class to be a speaker, gave a speech at the graduation ceremony of the Class of 2009 at the Sonoma Academy on Saturday June 12, 2009 (Scott Manchester / For The Press Democrat)
Faculty speaker Marco Morrone, who was chosen by the senior class to be a speaker, gave a speech at the graduation ceremony of the Class of 2009 at the Sonoma Academy on Saturday June 12, 2009 (Scott Manchester / For The Press Democrat)

Morrone still holds a valid California certificate of clearance with the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, which shows he passed a background check and his fingerprints are on file with the Department of Justice. It remains unclear if the commission is aware of the accusations of misconduct he faces.

‘Exactly what I was afraid of’

Grace Erny, one of seven women who shared her story in The Press Democrat investigation in June of witnessing or directly experiencing Morrone’s misconduct while a Sonoma Academy student, said she was “really horrified” to learn he had been able to return to a classroom.

How to reach our reporters

If you want to share your story

Press Democrat reporters Kaylee Tornay and Martin Espinoza are continuing to cover alumni allegations of sexual harassment, abuse and misconduct at Sonoma Academy and claims the school failed to safeguard students.

Here is how to contact them:

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

_____

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

_____

Sonoma Academy coverage

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

When Morrone started at Casa Grande in April this year, Erny and several of her fellow graduates had been pressing Sonoma Academy officials for months for more transparency around his dismissal from the private school.

“I would say this is exactly what I was afraid of,” she said. “For me, this is one of the main reasons that I thought going public was the right thing to do — to prevent further harm. We brought this concern to the Sonoma Academy administration as well, when they decided not to tell the school community why (Morrone) was fired. This was one of the first concerns we raised.”

If Petaluma and county schools officials had known about Morrone’s history at Sonoma Academy, it’s unlikely he would have been hired as a substitute, according to those officials.

Laughlin, the county Office of Education associate superintendent, said SCOE will temporarily remove teachers from its “notice of employment” list while the agency department conducts its own investigation into any teacher that is the subject of misconduct reports. That can be spurred by a report of an arrest, notification from a local school of issues with the sub, or a report made by a member of the public.

“We do the best that we can to keep people informed as to who they’re hiring,” he said.

Sonoma Academy’s apparent silence, in this case, did not help matters.

“I have no knowledge that they reached out to us,” Laughlin said

Foehl, who took over as head of school at Sonoma Academy in 2020, did not respond to an email with detailed questions asking about what, if any, notification the school made to other agencies, including SCOE and the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, about Morrone.

Since June, Foehl and other Sonoma Academy officials have declined requests for interviews and not answered questions from The Press Democrat about the growing number of reports and findings of teacher misconduct and administrator neglect at the school.

No calls to previous employers

Harris, the Petaluma superintendent, said his district relies largely on SCOE’s processes of clearing substitute candidates, which involves a criminal background check, fingerprinting and training on mandatory reporting, blood-borne pathogens and sexual harassment awareness.

Morrone cleared his background check. No calls were made to his previous employers, which is typical, according to Laughlin.

“From our perspective, we’re like, ‘Score, this is great.’” Harris said about Morrone’s hiring. He said Morrone told the district he was pursuing a master's degree and his nearly two decades of teaching experience also were a plus.

Morrone, reached by email, did not respond to written questions about his employment with Petaluma City Schools.

Petaluma schools officials became aware of students’ reports about Morrone and his dismissal from Sonoma Academy on June 9, Harris said, after seeing The Press Democrat’s first story.

“Of course, our response is, ‘Oh my gosh,’” Harris said. “That was really the first time that we had any knowledge that there was even an accusation (of misconduct).”

That day, Harris said, Morrone called the district and resigned.

The district also launched an investigation that day at Casa Grande, Harris said, which involved contacting every student who had Morrone as their teacher during those six weeks. Harris was unable to provide an exact number, but estimated that Morrone dealt with about 150 students across five periods. Because most of Petaluma’s high-schoolers stayed home during hybrid learning, Harris estimated about 30% attended school in person.

None of those students reported misconduct, Harris said.

“We wanted to make sure, for every student who had contact, that there were no problems,” he said. “And that’s exactly what we found.”

Laughlin declined to go into detail about how Morrone’s name came off SCOE’s list of approved substitutes, but confirmed Morrone is no longer on it.

Morrone, however, retains the certificate of clearance through April 1, 2026, according to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. He previously held a single-subject credential while working at a public school in Marin County, which expired in 2000.

The agency’s Committee of Credentials investigates any report of misconduct by a credential-holder, regardless of whether the credential is active or expired, and then makes recommendations to the commission based on its findings.

The commission then votes in public session on the recommendations of the committee.

Sasha Horwitz, governmental relations and public affairs manager for the commission, said the law prohibits him from confirming whether or not an individual is under investigation by the committee.

Laughlin also declined to say whether or not SCOE made a report about Morrone to the Committee of Credentials.

“I will tell you that we will typically do it in those kinds of situations,” he said. “When something is in the paper, somebody is suspected (of misconduct) and we want to make sure the (commission) sees those things.”

Erny, the Sonoma Academy graduate, said she was relieved to learn that no reports of misconduct surfaced at Casa Grande.

Still, she said, “It’s very clear, even more than it was before, that inadequate steps were taken after his firing to ensure that he couldn’t be in contact with vulnerable young people again.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect the type of document Marco Morrone has received from the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, and that his previous credential is expired.

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

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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