Sonoma Academy graduate sues school in wake of sex abuse, misconduct revelations
A Sonoma Academy graduate is suing the private Santa Rosa prep school in the wake of a new report that detailed abuse and harassment by three staff members and the failure of school administrators to report student concerns to law enforcement.
The 35-page complaint, filed Wednesday in Sonoma County Superior Court, appears to be the first case brought by a former student over staff misconduct and abuse.
The suit comes two days after school officials released a report stating that over three dozen students had been subjected to abuse dating back 18 years and that administrators had repeatedly failed to take action.
The report was commissioned after an investigation in June by The Press Democrat.
The suit names as defendants Sonoma Academy, former head of school Janet Durgin, former humanities teacher Marco Morrone, and Ellie Dwight, the founding assistant head of school, who resigned Tuesday.
The former student, identified as Jane Doe, experienced sexual abuse and harassment in the educational setting, sexual battery, abuse and gender violence, among other alleged civil rights violations, according to the complaint.
The suit seeks unspecified financial damages.
Alex Schack, the San Diego-based attorney representing the graduate, described the goals of the lawsuit as twofold.
“Number one, that this will never happen again at Sonoma Academy,” he said. “I don’t care what they say they’re going to do — we would like a court order making sure they do it. And number two is to compensate the victims for the harm they suffered.”
The complaint lists additional unknown plaintiffs as Jane Roes 1-100, allowing for others to join in the case, Schack said.
The lawsuit does not describe any single incident or set of encounters inflicted on the graduate. It instead relies on allegations of staff abuse and harassment, as well as neglect by administrators, outlined in the 49-page investigative report released by the school Monday.
Morrone was found by school investigators to have behaved in an inappropriate, sexually charged way with female students, including improper touching and grooming aimed at sexual contact, affecting at least 34 students over his 18-year tenure, the report from New York law firm Debevoise & Plimpton stated.
Durgin and Dwight were among the school officials who received multiple reports of Morrone’s misconduct from students and graduates, but they did not inform the school’s board of trustees or law enforcement, even when they were advised by the school’s counsel to do so, the school’s investigators found.
In her resignation message to the school community, Dwight said her departure was necessary for the school to move forward.
“In the past 18 months I have thought deeply about my blindspots and my leadership in a culture that allowed this to happen and I will continue to do so in the months and years to come,“ she said in the note included in Tuesday’s announcement from Head of School Tucker Foehl. ”Young people — and our school — have been hurt on my watch and that cannot be excused. Sorry is not strong enough.“
Foehl, Durgin and Dwight did not return messages seeking comment Wednesday evening.
The lawsuit also mentions Shannon Rake, who was assistant girls’ soccer coach at Sonoma Academy in 2002 and 2003, and Adrian Belic, who taught a single filmmaking course in 2004, but does not name them as defendants.
In the report, Rake was accused of sexually abusing one student and Belic was accused of sexually abusing two.
Their names in the lawsuit are included as they relate to contributing to “the environment that allowed this abuse to take place,” Schack said.
“While the current complaint doesn’t allege them as defendants, the expectation is discovery will result in their addition,” he said.
The Santa Rosa Police Department told The Press Democrat this week that it is investigating reports of child sex abuse “associated with staff at Sonoma Academy.”
Morrone was fired in 2020 in the wake of an investigation launched by Foehl, who succeeded Durgin as head of school in the same year. Rake was fired in 2003, according to school investigators, and Belic did not return after the end of his class in 2004.
The complaint states that administrators, “despite having knowledge of sexual abuse by Rake in 2002, Belic in 2004, and Morrone as early as 2006 ... made no efforts to address, protect against, or otherwise remedy the constant and traumatizing sexual harassment, violence, and/or abuse that Plaintiffs suffered.
“As a result of Defendants’ conduct, Plaintiffs have suffered severe emotional, physical, and financial damages, among other things, for which they are entitled to just compensation,” the lawsuit states.
The last names for Morrone and Durgin are misspelled throughout the complaint.
Schack said preserving the anonymity of his client is a key priority.
He said he is in talks with two other Sonoma Academy graduates about the possibility of joining the case. Schack’s local partner in the case is attorney Jack Weaver, of Santa Rosa firm Welty, Weaver and Currie.
Schack and Weaver have previously worked together on wildfire litigation in Sonoma County. Schack’s firm also represented 702 victims in a lawsuit against the University of Southern California over years of abuse by longtime student health center gynecologist, Dr. George Tyndall.
The $842 million settlement in the USC case is the largest single sexual abuse settlement in U.S. history, according to the Schack Law Group.
The seven female graduates of Sonoma Academy who earlier this year came forward in a Press Democrat investigation with allegations of misconduct and harassment by Morrone and inaction by campus officials are involved in a mediation process with the school aimed at resolving their complaints without litigation.
Their initiative, called The Athena Project, has pushed the campus to launch a therapy fund for victims and make other changes to safeguard students.
Debevoise & Plimpton investigators recommended an additional set of reforms in their report, including improved record keeping and staff training, and stronger oversight by administrators and board trustees.
Read the entire lawsuit below or at this link:
You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @ka_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.