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Sonoma Academy: $104 million institution now in cross hairs of sex abuse, misconduct scandal

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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.

Sonoma Academy’s reputation as one of the most prestigious college preparatory schools north of San Francisco is well established.

That reputation suffered another massive blow last week, however, as a school-commissioned report detailed alleged sex abuse and misconduct by three former employees affecting at least 37 students over nearly two decades.

The school first opened in 2001 at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, where it operated until moving in 2008 onto a $35 million state-of-the art campus at the base of Taylor Mountain. The 34-acre site was donated to Sonoma Academy by Kendall-Jackson founder Jess Jackson and his wife, Barbara Banke, after they purchased it in 2000.

The school reported net assets of $104 million, including $61 million tied to land, buildings and equipment, according to tax records filed in 2021.

Tuition is $48,000, though the school annually has given away or credited millions of dollars of financial aid to students, including $4 million in 2019, according to its tax disclosures.

Its 19-member board of trustees includes a half-dozen executives from the county’s wine industry, as well as banking, law, development and education sectors.

Nancy Lasseter, owner of Lasseter Family Winery and wife of former Pixar executive John Lasseter, is a founding trustee. Katie Jackson, the daughter of late billionaire Jess Jackson and Banke, and a vice president of Jackson Family Wines, is an alumna (Class of 2004) and trustee.

Trustees are not compensated, but pay for the school’s top administrator far outpaces that of public school leaders and many private-sector executives in the county.

In 2019, founding Head of School Janet Durgin had a listed salary of $423,098, with $194,000 reported in additional compensation, according to school tax forms. Assistant Head of School Ellie Dwight, also there from the school’s 2001 founding, had a listed salary of $162,121, with additional compensation of $6,000.

Durgin retired in June 2020. She and Dwight were both named in the 49-page investigative report by New York law firm Debevoise and Plimpton. It detailed instances when investigators said one or both of them failed to follow up on reports students and alumni made about longtime humanities teacher Marco Morrone’s alleged misconduct.

Morrone, who was fired in 2020 by new Head of School Tucker Foehl, was found to have behaved in an inappropriate, sexually charged way, including grooming of underage girls, with at least 34 female students over his 18-year tenure.

Dwight resigned Tuesday, a day after Sonoma Academy released the Debevoise report. In a letter shared with staff and families, she said she was “devastated’ by the report.

“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.”

Durgin issued a statement Tuesday morning apologizing for “any missteps” during her tenure while disputing some of the investigators’ findings about her actions.

“Despite best efforts and intentions, some policies and procedures were inadequate,” Durgin said. “Any mistakes made were not for lack of deep commitment to the health, safety, education and care of our students.”

Calls made throughout the past week to trustees, including winemaker Tom Birdsall, Katie Jackson, financial adviser John Lee and Nick Folly, an assistant U.S. attorney based in New York, went unreturned.

Tory Nosler, the board chair and a local physician, did not respond to four phone calls for comment throughout the week.

EDITORS NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect the correct amount of financial aid Sonoma Academy issued in 2019 to its students, according to financial disclosures.

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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