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Sonoma Academy grad decries ex-school chief’s ‘failure’ to stop teacher’s harassment

A 2008 graduate reiterated that she made three reports over 11 years about a teacher’s misconduct. The head of school at the time failed to take her seriously, she said.|

A Sonoma Academy graduate who said she made multiple reports to top school officials about a teacher’s inappropriate behavior accused the former head of school in an open letter Tuesday of minimizing the extent of the teacher’s misconduct.

That enabled him to harm other teenage girls for years afterward, said Emma McAleavy, a 2008 graduate.

She said she made reports to school officials, including former Head of School Janet Durgin, three times over 11 years, but Durgin failed to take seriously her concerns and those of other alumni.

Their complaints were about longtime humanities teacher Marco Morrone, who was fired by Durgin’s successor, Tucker Foehl, in October 2020.

As a senior in 2007, McAleavy made her first report to a faculty member, who relayed her concerns to Durgin. She said she followed up with another complaint to Durgin in 2016 and informed another school official in 2018, a decade after she graduated from the prestigious private Santa Rosa high school.

“In conversations with me and with other alumni, you have always maintained that you could not act upon student and alumni concerns about Marco’s behavior because you didn’t have enough evidence. You have referred to our complaints as ‘rumors,’” McAleavy, 30, said in her open letter to Durgin.

“But here’s the thing, Janet: you chose not to investigate our allegations or report them to the authorities so they could do a proper investigation.”

Durgin retired in June 2020 after leading the school since its 2001 founding. She declined an interview request Tuesday but responded to McAleavy’s open letter with a short statement.

“I am deeply sorry for the pain that this situation has caused so many people,” she said. “I am shaken to the core because as Head of School for 20 years, I have always been deeply dedicated to the best interests of Sonoma Academy’s students.”

McAleavy provided her open letter to Durgin to The Press Democrat and posted it Tuesday on the website for The Athena Project, an initiative launched by seven women who graduated from Sonoma Academy from 2008 to 2014. The group includes those who said they were targets of sexual harassment by Morrone, as well as some who said they witnessed the behavior and now consider themselves advocates.

McAleavy is one of several of the women who told The Press Democrat they feel they were victims of grooming by Morrone during their high school years. Grooming, according to experts, is a process by which a person uses favors, compliments and other gestures to gain trust and intimacy with a child for purposes of manipulation, abuse or exploitation.

The women say they have not made reports to law enforcement, nor has the school. No lawsuits have been filed to date against Morrone or Sonoma Academy related to his behavior.

McAleavy said she wrote her open letter to Durgin in response to a statement Durgin issued over the weekend defending her own actions.

Beyond a 2007 complaint that resulted in Morrone’s discipline and counseling, Durgin acknowledged no other prior knowledge of complaints about Morrone’s behavior.

“In 2007, when a serious issue concerning a student was brought to my attention, I quickly addressed it and I believed it was taken care of with discipline and counseling for the employee. Subsequent to my retirement, a group of alumnae approached the school directly with names and additional information, at which point the school took appropriate action and the employee was terminated,” she said in the Saturday statement.

“A number of things have been said in the press about my role and my knowledge of the situation that are inaccurate and incomplete. During my 20 years at Sonoma Academy as an administrator and educator, I always acted in the best interests of the entire school community. I am proud of these young women who are now demanding that their painful stories be heard.”

McAleavy on Tuesday called Durgin’s proclamation of pride “offensive” in light of the additional reports McAleavy said she and other graduates made about Morrone, starting at least in 2007 and extending through 2019.

McAleavy referred to other women in The Athena Project, saying Durgin could have protected them by removing Morrone 14 years ago.

“I will never understand why you didn’t believe me,” McAleavy said. “All I know is that had you believed me, Clio, Savannah, Morgan, and Miranda never would have been harmed by Marco at Sonoma Academy.”

Durgin’s weekend statement mentioned only one concern raised about Morrone, in 2007, which aligns with the timing of McAleavy’s first report during her senior year. Durgin did not name Morrone, but said that she “believed it was taken care of with discipline and counseling.”

Foehl, the head of school, has declined multiple requests for an interview and refused to answer written questions about what the school knew about Morrone’s behavior.

In a June 9 letter to alumni, parents and staff, he acknowledged publicly for the first time that three alumni complaints last summer had triggered an investigation into Morrone’s conduct. The findings of that investigation, which the school has not made public, led to Morrone’s firing, Foehl said.

Morrone, 50, has not responded to repeated requests for interviews, including messages left by phone, email and two letters — one sent by priority mail and another delivered to his home.

Foehl’s statement mentioned just one instance in 2007 in which Morrone received “discipline and counseling … for his comments and actions toward a student.” The teacher’s misconduct was found by school investigators to have continued after that intervention and up until 2014, Foehl said in the campus letter.

Foehl said Morrone was fired for “(engaging) in conduct that violated appropriate boundaries with students who were members of the classes of 2008 through 2014.”

He did not name Durgin in the statement and did not mention any other reports until those received from the three graduates shortly after his June 2020 arrival.

Those reports came from McAleavy and 2008 Sonoma Academy classmates Grace Erny and Linnet Vacha, the women told The Press Democrat in interviews over the past month.

Durgin said the complaints made to Foehl in 2020, included “names and additional information,” that she did not have access to in 2007.

But McAleavy said Foehl received the same amount of information in 2020 that she provided to Durgin nearly 14 years ago, and in subsequent reports to her in 2016 and another school official in 2018.

“The information I brought to Tucker in August of 2020 was the same information I reported in 2007, again in 2016, and again in 2018. And I shared the same list of potential victims that I had shared the last three times I reported this matter,” she said in the letter.

Other students also made reports to Durgin, McAleavy said, including two male alumni.

“You employed a kind of circular logic,” McAleavy said, addressing Durgin in Tuesday’s letter. “You said you could not act because you did not have evidence, and at the same time you refused to seek the evidence that might allow you to act.”

Durgin on Tuesday did not respond to the specific claims made in McAleavy’s letter, saying she was limited by what she could say publicly.

“I am currently constrained from providing a deeper response by many factors but please know that I fully intend to communicate directly at some point in the future,” she said.

The seven women approached The Press Democrat in early May in the hopes of sparking a stronger public reckoning about the reports that led to Morrone’s dismissal. Three of them — McAleavy, Erny and Vacha — had been in conversation with Foehl since August, after they sent him their letters detailing their complaints.

Foehl posted his June 9 letter to the school community hours after Press Democrat reporters visited Morrone’s home in an attempt to reach him for comment.

“It is important to note that while the investigation disclosed conduct that seriously violated our expectations for employees, the investigator found no evidence that Morrone had sexual relationships with students or engaged in sexual abuse of students,” he wrote.

Members of Sonoma Academy’s board of trustees, including the chairwoman, Tory Nosler, have not returned multiple calls for comment over the past week.

McAleavy, in her letter, credited Foehl for acting on the women’s complaints.

“Tucker simply made a different choice— the right choice,” she said, addressing Durgin. “Where you chose to give Marco the benefit of the doubt, Tucker chose to hire a professional to do an investigation.”

The seven women are engaged with Foehl and school officials in a type of mediation called “restorative justice.” They seek to avoid litigation, they said, by working together with the school to find solutions that can repair the harm students experienced through Morrone’s behavior and officials’ inaction.

McAleavy in her open letter urged Durgin to find other ways of supporting the graduates who attended Sonoma Academy under her tenure.

“Should you wish to make amends for the harm you have caused, you can begin with a genuine apology for failing to believe me and for failing to protect students from Marco,” McAleavy wrote.

“And you can use whatever influence you have with the current Board of Trustees to convince them to acknowledge not only Marco’s misconduct but Sonoma Academy’s failure to report his conduct to the proper authorities when you and others had more than a reasonable basis for suspecting he was engaging in inappropriate behavior.

“Anything short of that is meaningless.”

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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