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Former Sonoma Academy head of school apologizes for ‘missteps,’ disputes some findings in misconduct report

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Press Democrat reporters Kaylee Tornay and Martin Espinoza are continuing to cover alumni allegations of sexual harassment by a longtime former Sonoma Academy teacher 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

Sonoma Academy coverage

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

Janet Durgin, the longtime former Sonoma Academy head of school, issued a written statement Tuesday that apologized for “any missteps” by her administration but disputed other key findings in the wake of a new report revealing alleged sexual abuse of students and misconduct involving three staff members during her tenure at the private Santa Rosa campus.

The report was produced by an independent law firm hired by Sonoma Academy to investigate alumni allegations of inappropriate behavior by longtime former teacher Marco Morrone, as well as any other staff misconduct. Investigators determined Durgin, who led the school from its 2001 founding until her retirement in 2020, had been aware of Morrone’s transgressive behavior with female students as early as 2004, but had not taken steps to discipline him beyond assigning him counseling.

Investigators hired by the school after a Press Democrat investigation in June found Morrone’s sexually charged behavior with underage students affected at least 34 girls over his 18-year tenure, including one who had sexual relations with him after she graduated.

In one instance in 2007, the report said, the school’s attorneys had recommended administrators file a mandated report with law enforcement authorities about Morrone’s behavior toward a female student. Administrators did not alert authorities or file a report, investigators with the New York-based law firm Debevoise and Plimpton found.

The report also revealed that two other school employees sexually abused three other students, and assigned blame to top administrators for routinely dismissing the concerns of students who tried to report the behavior.

"I want to apologize heartfully for any missteps during my tenure. We knew when we began a school charged with the care of adolescents that it needed to be safe in every regard--emotionally, socially, physically,“ Durgin said in her statement. ”Despite best efforts and intentions, some policies and procedures were inadequate. Any mistakes made were not for lack of deep commitment to the health, safety, education and care of our students.“

But she also disputed some of the report’s findings involving her actions.

"Decisions regarding the issues investigated were made collaboratively, involving various administrators, lawyers, and trustees. While I perceive some factual inaccuracies and disagree with some of the conclusions in the report as it pertains to me, as the founding head of school, I take responsibility for the ultimate outcomes.“

She did not specify what findings she rejected about her reported inaction or dismissal of student complaints about staff misconduct.

The school’s report called out multiple instances over many years in which Durgin and other school officials were informed of complaints about Morrone’s misconduct and abusive behavior by other staff members but failed to take sufficient action to safeguard students.

The misconduct by Morrone, 51, involved grooming multiple students “for his own purposes,” investigators said, including sexual contact.

“Examples of Morrone’s inappropriate behavior included directly or indirectly intimate, sexual and deeply personal journal entries as part of class assignments; inappropriately touching students; developing close emotional bonds with students through one on one meetings and emails; recommending graphic, sexually explicit or mature books; and giving students copies of his own sexually explicit manuscripts, one of which detailed a graphic sexual relationship between a student and her high school teacher,” investigators wrote in the report.

The counseling Durgin mandated for Morrone was one example of the school’s failed intervention, investigators found. He was fired in 2020 after an investigation launched by the new head of school, Tucker Foehl.

Members “of the SA administration, including Durgin and (Assistant Head of School Ellie) Dwight, knew or should have known that Morrone's inappropriate conduct continued after 2007, but took inadequate steps to monitor and investigate. Those failures led to a culture where students believed Morrone's behavior was sanctioned,” the report said.

Two other former staff members at Sonoma Academy sexually abused at least three students while they were minors. The staff members, an assistant soccer coach and a filmmaking teacher, no longer work at the school — the coach was fired — but investigators found “no evidence” indicating anyone from Sonoma Academy reported the alleged criminal conduct to law enforcement at the time.

Shannon Rake, 42, a former star player at Sonoma State University, was the soccer coach accused of sexually abusing a Sonoma Academy female student between 2002 and 2003.

Adrian Belic during the 22nd Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival screening of  "Beyond The Call" at Majorie Luke Theatre in Santa Barbara, California. (Ray Mickshaw/WireImage)
Adrian Belic during the 22nd Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival screening of "Beyond The Call" at Majorie Luke Theatre in Santa Barbara, California. (Ray Mickshaw/WireImage)

Adrian Belic, 51, an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker, was the teacher who sexually abused two Sonoma Academy students, investigators said. The abuse took place after Belic taught a documentary course at the school in 2004.

Durgin in her statement said she had “full confidence” that the school’s trustees and staff would “respond courageously and comprehensively to the report’s findings so that SA students might thrive in ever greater safety.

“Most of all, I hope this investigation provides resolution, healing, and a path forward for any alumni of the school who were harmed."

Read Durgin’s statement below:

DurginStatement.pdf

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.  

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 by a longtime former Sonoma Academy teacher 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

Sonoma Academy coverage

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

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