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Report: 34 Sonoma Academy students exposed to misconduct by former teacher; two ex-staff members accused of sexual abuse

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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.

A longtime Sonoma Academy teacher acted inappropriately with at least 34 students over his 18-year tenure, according to a report from a law firm hired by the school after a Press Democrat investigation in June revealed allegations of sexual grooming and other improper behavior.

The 49-page report was released to students, parents and faculty by email Monday evening. It 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.

The report states that Marco Morrone, a former humanities teacher, who was the subject of The Press Democrat investigation, behaved in an inappropriate, sexually charged way with 34 girls who graduated from 2005 to 2021.

The misconduct by Morrone involved grooming multiple students “for his own purposes,” investigators said, including sexual contact. Investigators spoke with a former student who said she and Morrone had sexual interactions after she graduated. The investigators found no instance of Morrone having sexual relations with the girls while they were students.

Debevoise and Plimpton, the New York-based law firm, also concluded that two other former staff members at Sonoma Academy sexually abused at least three students while they were minors. The staff members, a 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.

Faculty speaker Marco Morrone, who was chosen by the senior class to be a speaker, gave a speech at the graduation ceremony of the Class of 2009 at the Sonoma Academy on Saturday June 12, 2009. (Scott Manchester / For The Press Democrat)
Faculty speaker Marco Morrone, who was chosen by the senior class to be a speaker, gave a speech at the graduation ceremony of the Class of 2009 at the Sonoma Academy on Saturday June 12, 2009. (Scott Manchester / For The Press Democrat)

Investigators blamed top administrators at the prestigious prep academy for knowing about general complaints and specific allegations about Morrone’s improper conduct with female students for years. They failed to do enough to stop it, investigators said.

“Debevoise concludes that (Sonoma Academy) administrators showed a pattern of dismissing students' concerns, at least in some circumstances implicitly blaming them for the uncomfortable interactions they reported, and often accepting Morrone’s version of events without any challenge,” the report said.

Shannon Rake, 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, 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.

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

The firm interviewed 133 people, including alumni, current and former faculty, staff and trustees, current and former Sonoma Academy parents, and others to help produce its report. Investigators also reviewed 61,000 documents, including email, personnel files and yearbooks.

Sonoma Academy’s board said it had relayed findings from the report to local law enforcement.

Morrone taught at the school from 2002 to 2020, when he was fired for his behavior after an outside investigation commissioned by the new head of school Tucker Foehl. In the new report, investigators said he behaved inappropriately with students from the classes of 2005 through 2021.

Former and current staff members who were alerted to Morrone’s behavior multiple times during his 18 years at the school, including longtime Head of School Janet Durgin and Assistant Head of School Ellie Dwight, repeatedly failed to investigate complaints about his conduct with students, the report said.

School administrators at the time didn’t tell law enforcement officials about any of the reports made by students or graduates, investigators found.

“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.”

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.

A group of seven female graduates spoke out this summer to The Press Democrat about what they described as a yearslong record of misconduct by Morrone and mishandling of their complaints by school officials.

Monday night, they expressed their sorrow and outrage at the explosive findings.

“We are devastated by the extent of the harm done to Sonoma Academy students over the years,” the women said in a joint statement issued Monday under their group name, The Athena Project. “Our deepest empathy goes out to those who were sexually harassed, abused, or otherwise harmed while they were students at Sonoma Academy.”

Morrone did not speak to Debevoise and Plimpton investigators. He could not be reached for comment Monday night.

The school launched the outside investigation after publication of the Press Democrat investigation that detailed the women’s accusations and administrators’ lack of urgency in responding to their complaints.

Sonoma Academy's Board of Trustees said in its message to the campus community that unspecified reports about the conduct disclosed by school investigators had been forwarded to local law enforcement, and the school will comply with any criminal investigation.

“We are heartbroken by the events detailed within this report, not just the serious misconduct by three former employees but also the failure of school leaders to act when they learned that students under their care were being subjected to abuse,” the school’s statement read. “It is with heartfelt humility that we apologize for what our alumni endured as a result of their painful experiences.”

Durgin, who retired in June 2020 after leading the school since its 2001 founding, knew about complaints of Morrone’s behavior with female students since at least 2004, investigators found.

Emma McAleavy, a 2008 graduate, told The Press Democrat this summer she made reports to school officials, including Durgin, three times over 11 years, but Durgin failed to take seriously her concerns and those of other alumni.

That enabled him to harm other teenage girls for years afterward, McAleavy said.

Investigators reached a similar conclusion.

“Debevoise also concludes that the members of the SA administration, including Durgin and 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.

Sonoma Academy in Santa Rosa, Sunday, June 20, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
Sonoma Academy in Santa Rosa, Sunday, June 20, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

Sonoma Academy is based on a 34-acre, $35 million state-of-the-art campus at the base of Taylor Mountain — a site donated to the school by the late billionaire winemaker Jess Jackson, founder of Kendall-Jackson, and his wife, Barbara Banke.

Sonoma Academy is an academic powerhouse, with most of its graduates going on to leading colleges and universities. Annual tuition is $48,000, the highest in the county. The school has about 30 teachers, and about 40 employees in administrative roles, with overlap between the two groups.

In their report, investigators said Rake, the assistant girls’ soccer coach at Sonoma Academy in 2002 and 2003, formed a close relationship with one of the players that led to time spent together outside of practice and team events, and, eventually to sexual interactions while the girl was still a student and member of the team.

After Durgin and the team’s head coach learned of the sexual interactions from the girl’s parent, Rake was fired, investigators found. Administrators did not contact the student or offer her support, and Rake’s sexual interactions with the student continued after she was no longer working at the school, investigators said.

School officials at the time did not contact law enforcement about the abuse, as is required for such cases under California’s law, investigators said.

Rake's name is etched across the record books for Sonoma State's women's soccer program. In a historical guide published in 2018, Rake was listed as the program's all-time leading scorer with 39 goals between 1997-2000.

She was named to the North Bay Business Journal's Forty Under 40 in 2012 when she was general manager of Sports City.

She could not be reached for comment Monday night.

Belic, the former film instructor, is the Los Angeles-based co-founder of Wadi Rum Films.

Investigators said he groomed a female student who took his course in 2004 and considered him to be a mentor. He sexually abused her “on multiple occasions” before she graduated, the report said. Around the same time, investigators found, Belic sexually abused a second female student at Sonoma Academy on one occasion.

The report did not detail the sexual abuse in Belic’s case, which happened after the end of his course, according to the report.

“With regard to Shannon Rake and Adrian Belic, the two former employees who had sexual interactions with underage students, administrators could or should have asked more questions about the time that was spent alone with adults associated with the school,” the report said. “Given that, in both cases, the abuse continued after the employees were terminated.”

Belic could not be reached for comment Monday night. He received an Oscar nomination for documentary feature for his earliest film, a “Genghis Blues,” shown at the Sundance Film Festival in 1999 according to the Internet Movie Database.

Dwight, who is still the assistant head of school at Sonoma Academy, was informed about Belic's sexually inappropriate behavior with one student, but did not follow up on what she was told by a school counselor, investigators said. No report to law enforcement was made about the misconduct.

The seven women of The Athena Project applauded the school for commissioning the investigation and publishing the report in full. That public account, and the school’s establishment of a therapy fund to reimburse survivors for mental health costs, the group said, represent “an important step in the right direction.”

Still, Sonoma Academy must take steps to ensure similar situations are not allowed to happen to students again, and that any victims are properly compensated, the women said.

“There is still more that needs to be done,” the group said.

Staff Writer Colin Atagi contributed reporting. 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.  

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