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Graduates say Sonoma Academy martial arts classes exposed them to teacher’s aggression

Coverage of Sonoma Academy harassment allegations

Click here to read the complete coverage.

How to reach the reporters

Press Democrat reporters Kaylee Tornay and Martin Espinoza are continuing to cover alumni allegations of sexual harassment 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

Several young men who graduated from Sonoma Academy and recounted troubling interactions with former teacher Marco Morrone said they were treated with excessive physical aggression by him in martial arts classes Morrone led at the school.

The classes were a secondary role for Morrone, who for 18 years taught English and history at the private Santa Rosa high school before he was fired last year for inappropriate behavior with students.

Some of the martial arts lessons were private, one-on-one sessions, including with girls. Others were group lessons.

Cody Steele, a 2010 graduate, was enrolled in one of those classes during the spring of his senior year. A 6’3“ 18 year-old who weighed about 150 pounds at the time, Steele was a basketball player with no experience in martial arts.

His first class with Morrone ended with the teacher sparring with every student, Steele said.

When it was his turn, Steele managed to land “a few blows” on Morrone, he said, which he thought may have made his instructor angry. In the next moment, he said, Morrone let loose “a barrage of pretty serious kicks.”

“One or two hit me in the side of the head,” he said. “My vision was going blurry and my stance was getting more unorganized.”

Morrone took Steele down with a final kick that hit his guard, near his wrist. The sparring ended, and he recalled Morrone may have briefly congratulated him for staying in the mix.

He noticed he was bleeding moments later when he got to the locker room. Cuts laced his arm near his wrist. He assumed they were from Morrone’s toenails from the kicks he had landed.

The injured arm kept Steele out of commission for the next few martial arts classes. It also kept him up at night hurting. He was right-handed, and his right wrist had been injured, making it hard to complete assignments in other classes.

His Spanish teacher noticed, and so did his mother, Steele said. Both wanted to bring it up with a school official.

He refused.

“I didn’t want to be perceived as a tattletale or a victim or anything like that,” he said. “That was probably more scary to me than having an ugly injury.”

Ben Brown, founder and owner of Phas3 Martial Arts in Santa Rosa, a fighter with 44 years of experience, said that a tough-it-out mentality from any student should prompt an instructor to take extra care to protect them from serious injury.

“There’s 100 ways a good coach would have defused that situation before that had to happen,” he said of the incident Steele recounted.

Morrone has declined multiple requests for an interview and has not responded to written questions from The Press Democrat over the past two weeks.

In a June 9 statement from Head of School Tucker Foehl about Morrone’s dismissal, Foehl cited at least one instance of inappropriate behavior in a private martial arts class with a student. 2011 graduate Clio Wilde, though unnamed in Foehl’s statement, had told the school’s hired investigator she was pinned underneath Morrone once, straddling her hips, in a way that astonished and frightened her.

The statement highlighted no other incidents or injuries from the martial arts classes.

On Saturday, Foehl announced the school had agreed to launch a broader investigation into Morrone’s behavior and misconduct toward Sonoma Academy students, as well as school officials’ handling of any complaints.

Accounts shared by male graduates of Sonoma Academy indicated that several took serious blows or kicks from Morrone that resulted in injury.

One such injury included signs of possible head trauma and deserved a much clearer response from Morrone and the school, Brown said.

It involved Matt Reynoso, a Sonoma Academy graduate from the class of 2011.

Reynoso recounted a session in which Morrone kicked him in the side of the head and he began vomiting before class ended. Reynoso remembers the injury happened during his senior year. None of the students wore protective head gear, he recalled.

Reynoso said he did not seek medical care for his head injury, and Morrone didn’t push him to.

“He definitely wasn't like, ‘Oh, let's make sure you're OK. And, you know, maybe you should get checked out,’ or something like that,” Reynoso said.

He never told any other school employees about his injury.

Brown said immediate medical attention should have been sought.

“That needed to be a trip to the emergency room,” Brown said, noting that vomiting is a common sign of a serious concussion. “The kid shouldn’t have gone to sleep without being seen by a doctor.”

“The kids won’t do it on their own,” he continued. “The coach is supposed to make sure the kids do what they don’t know or want to do, but what’s in their best interest. That’s incredibly irresponsible.”

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

Coverage of Sonoma Academy harassment allegations

Click here to read the complete coverage.

How to reach the reporters

Press Democrat reporters Kaylee Tornay and Martin Espinoza are continuing to cover alumni allegations of sexual harassment 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

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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