Letter from Sonoma Academy founders shows rift over school’s teacher misconduct investigation

A prominent group of founders and former trustees contend a school investigative report unfairly portrayed the former head of school and harmed Sonoma Academy.|

Sonoma Academy investigation

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A coalition of Sonoma Academy founders and former trustees has written an open letter criticizing the private school’s board for its handling of an investigative report it made public in December 2021 revealing cases of teacher misconduct and sexual abuse.

The letter contends the report offered an incomplete portrait of actions taken by founding Head of School Janet Durgin to protect students from misconduct by Marco Morrone, a longtime humanities teacher.

Sonoma Academy maligned Durgin, the letter writers said, and by extension harmed the school, by accepting the investigation’s findings and subsequently removing Durgin’s name from a prominent campus building.

Message of Concern for Sonoma Academy.pdf

“We have the utmost empathy for any and all alumni victimized by inappropriate behavior by Marco Morrone or anyone else associated with Sonoma Academy,” the letter states. “We are confident, however, that there are literally thousands of alumni who thrive today in great part because of their years at SA.”

The credit for that, the letter states, goes to Durgin, “who overcame crisis after crisis during her 20 years at the helm. She deserves to be celebrated, not vilified and shunned.”

The investigation by New York-based firm Debevoise and Plimpton found Morrone acted inappropriately with at least 34 female students over his 18-year tenure — behavior that Durgin and other school officials did little to curb, according to the 49-page report.

Three other students were found to have been sexually abused by two staff members who were let go. Investigators found no evidence anyone from Sonoma Academy reported the alleged criminal conduct to law enforcement at the time, despite being aware of sexual abuse in at least one student’s case.

Gracy Erny, a 2008 graduate of Sonoma Academy and one of seven women who shared their stories of experiencing or witnessing Morrone’s inappropriate behavior in a series of Press Democrat articles in 2021, described the letter from the founders and former trustees as “incredibly disingenuous.”

“It’s hard not to see the release of this letter and rebuttal as a really insidious way to undermine the restorative justice process we’ve been engaged in,” Erny said.

Since June 2021, the seven women, who formed an advocacy group called the Athena Project, have been engaged in mediation talks with the school to push for accountability and redress for harmed students and graduates.

As a result of those efforts, Sonoma Academy has established a fund with RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, enabling those graduates and students to access compensation for therapy. The school’s hiring of Debevoise and Plimpton to fully investigate employee misconduct was a goal of the Athena Project.

However, the women are continuing to push for the school to establish a process for graduates to seek restitution. They say the school has made no progress toward that goal this year as it waits for its insurance provider to weigh in.

The open letter, dated June 6, was signed by 16 people ― a fraction of the 995 people who have signed onto a letter of solidarity with victims posted last June on the Athena Project website. But they include some of Sonoma Academy’s most recognizable and wealthy founders, including Barbara Banke, of Jackson Family Wines, Nancy Lasseter of Lasseter Family Wines, and Beverly Zeigler.

It was circulated to a small group of people, who were in turn invited to share the contents “with present and past friends of SA.”

Banke and her late husband, billionaire winemaker Jess Jackson, founder of Kendall-Jackson, donated the 34-acre tract in Santa Rosa on which the $35 million state-of-the-art Sonoma Academy campus is based. Their daughter, Katie Jackson, a 2004 graduate, serves on the school’s board of trustees. She was not among the signers.

The group’s concerns center largely on the assessment of Durgin in the Debevoise report. Durgin’s actions, including responses to multiple student and parent reports about Morrone, were the focus of much scrutiny, given that a student first raised concerns about his behavior as far back as 2007.

Debevoise and Plimpton found instances where Durgin did not pass on information on complaints about Morrone to the trustees. In one instance, investigators found, the school’s legal counsel recommended Sonoma Academy make a mandated report with information about Morrone, but Durgin did not do so.

The letter writers cite a June 1 report prepared by former trustee David Drinkwater, which appeared to be based on subsequent interviews with Durgin and her attorney, who is not named. Drinkwater’s report states the Debevoise investigation failed to mention actions Durgin took to address Morrone’s misconduct.

Critique of the Debevoise Investigation Report for Sonoma Academy.pdf

One example was “unannounced visits” Durgin made to Morrone’s classroom after she disciplined Morrone for a troubling interaction with a student in 2007, they said. His analysis also questions whether Durgin knew of the widespread nature of Morrone’s misconduct.

In the Debevoise report, former students made it clear that Sonoma Academy’s tight-knit community offered little ability for Morrone’s behavior to remain a secret.

“In cases where they did experience boundary-crossing, students feared that their experiences would not be perceived as sufficiently serious, or believed that administrators were not interested in hearing about Morrone’s conduct,” the Debevoise report states.

Drinkwater’s report contends Durgin also pushed for the Sonoma Academy board to act on risk management, including creating an oversight committee, but the board did not act.

The letter writers said the board unnecessarily harmed Durgin by not speaking with her before or after publicizing the Debevoise and Plimpton report and by stripping her name from the Guild and Commons building in December.

Erny said she found the group’s lack of attention to the harm victims suffered, or the progress the school has made in tending to them, concerning.

None of the trustees or founders involved are experts in sexual harassment or abuse, Erny pointed out. Drinkwater identifies himself as “a seasoned independent school head, a senior college administrator, and a consultant to schools” who has dealt with student safety issues.

Attempts to reach him by phone and email Saturday were unsuccessful.

No victims were interviewed, only Durgin and her lawyer. Drinkwater also reviewed “reports, emails, notes provided by administration,” according to his report.

By contrast, the Debevoise and Plimpton report was based on interviews with 133 people and on review of more than 61,000 documents.

“I have confidence that the Debevoise and Plimpton report, with its thoroughness and professionalism, can stand on its own merit,” Erny said. “I don’t think this document poses any real challenge to the core premises of the Debevoise and Plimpton report.

“I also believe and hope that most members of the Sonoma Academy community can recognize that Janet displayed shocking lapses of judgment and does not deserve to be commemorated at the school,” she said.

Durgin did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday. In a statement in December responding to the Debevoise report, she disputed some of the investigators' conclusions, but apologized for missteps.

The letter writers also criticized school leadership for not meeting with Durgin or with members of their group to discuss their concerns.

“Open communication and trust have always been fundamental values of Sonoma Academy, but for nearly a year now, neither Mr. Foehl nor anyone on the SA board has talked with Janet about the topics addressed in the Debevoise report,” the letter said. “Further, despite repeated requests by several of us, for half a year current board members refused to meet with us to discuss the situation.”

When a few trustees did meet with some of the signers on April 13, they stood by the Debevoise report and their subsequent responses, according to the letter.

“To say we are disappointed is a gross understatement,” the letter says.

The letter writers, though, did not outline specific goals for what steps the school should take. Instead, they called broadly for more engagement with school stakeholders.

“All of SA’s constituencies deserve a fuller explanation of what actually happened back in the day,” the letter says. “We hope this letter can begin that process.”

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

Sonoma Academy investigation

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

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