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