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Founding Sonoma Academy administrator resigns after misconduct report faulting her oversight

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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.

Ellie Dwight, founding assistant head of school at Sonoma Academy, has resigned from her position at the elite Santa Rosa college prep school.

Her departure, ending a 21-year tenure at the school, came a day after the release of an investigative report from the school detailing student allegations of sexual harassment and abuse by three staff members, and cases when administrators, including Dwight, knew of inappropriate staff behavior but did not respond with urgency or sufficient followup.

Head of School Tucker Foehl announced Dwight’s resignation in an email to Sonoma Academy families and included her departing message to colleagues.

“I am devastated by the report,” she wrote. “It is very painful to see 20 years distilled into 50 pages, pages that illuminate the ways in which we as a school — and me as a school leader — failed to keep our students safe.

“There is much I would like to say here but this is not the time or the place,” she continued. “Young people — and our school — have been hurt on my watch and that cannot be excused. Sorry is not strong enough.”

Dwight did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday night.

In the report from New York law firm Debevoise and Plimpton, investigators found longtime humanities teacher Marco Morrone had behaved in an inappropriate, sexually charged way toward female students, including grooming for sexual contact, that affected at least 34 students over his 18-year tenure.

He had sex with at least one of those girls after she graduated, investigators found. Foehl fired him in 2020 following an earlier investigation spurred by a group of women who went public with their accounts of his misconduct in a Press Democrat investigation in June.

Linnet Vacha, a 2008 graduate and one of the women who came forward, said she thought Dwight’s resignation was appropriate in light of the revelations about her leadership.

“The report demonstrates pretty clearly she absolutely lacks either the judgment or the character to be in any sort of position working with young people or watching over young people,” Vacha said.

The two other former staff members called out in the school’s new report are Shannon Rake, the assistant girls’ soccer coach at Sonoma Academy in 2002 and 2003, and Adrian Belic, who taught a single filmmaking course in 2004.

In the report, Rake was accused of sexually abusing one student and Belic was accused of sexually abusing two.

The report detailed multiple instances in which administrators should have further investigated reports made to them about concerning staff behavior, or should have offered support to students known to be victims of sexual abuse or harassment.

In one instance in 2012, the report said, then-Head of School Janet Durgin received a letter “detailing concerns about Morrone’s inappropriate boundary-crossing behavior.“ She forwarded the letter to Dwight, investigators said, though Dwight did not recall receiving it, according to the report.

The letter named six graduates suspected to have been targeted by Morrone, with concerns more girls had been affected. It “stated pointedly that SA students had ‘watched (the schools) tolerate Marco’s poor boundaries for years’” and warned he was a liability for the school.

“Neither Durgin nor Dwight took any action in response — they took no steps to learn additional information, did not contact counsel, nor did they discuss the information with the Board,” investigators wrote.

Durgin retired in 2020 after 20 years at Sonoma Academy. She issued an apology Tuesday morning for “any missteps” detailed in the report, while disputing some unspecified findings about her reported lapses to reported cases of misconduct.

A lawsuit filed Wednesday by an unidentified Sonoma Academy graduate named Morrone, Durgin, Dwight and the school as defendants responsible for exposing her to sexual harassment, abuse, battery, gender violence and other civil rights violations.

The Press Democrat emailed Dwight for comment at her school address and received an automatic reply that she no longer worked for Sonoma Academy.

In his announcement, Foehl acknowledged the reasons behind her departure.

“Ellie has been a leader at Sonoma Academy since the school’s founding, and she has shaped the direction of our school in immeasurable ways,” he wrote. “We know the deep and positive impact she has had on generations of students, and we know that her departure — and the very painful impetus for it — do not negate these experiences and what she means to so many of you.”

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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