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From top left, clockwise, Morgan Apostle, Grace Erny, Savannah Turley, Linnet Vacha, Miranda Rush, Clio Wilde and Emma McAleavy. The seven women have accused their former Sonoma Academy teacher, Marco Morrone, of improper conduct and sexually charged, inappropriate behavior.

Sonoma Academy graduates known years ago as ‘Marco’s Girls’ spotlight teacher’s sexual harassment, school inaction

Miranda Rush stood in her bedroom crying.

It was Dec. 17, 2020, and she had just opened an email that said her former teacher at Sonoma Academy, Marco Morrone, was no longer employed at the school. The welcome news, in a campus update from Head of School Tucker Foehl, gave no other information about Morrone’s departure.

But Rush, 25, had a gut feeling.

“My body just knew,” she said.

Bad memories came rushing back: intimate comments Morrone left on her school assignments; him standing uncomfortably close to her at times; and his repeated request she paint his portrait off campus.

Rush’s pursuit of more answers began immediately.

She posted Instagram stories about the school’s email and exchanged messages with high school friends throughout the night. Over the next several weeks, she learned a group of graduates with similar experiences at the school, one of the North Bay’s most prestigious and expensive college prep campuses, had alerted school officials months and even years before about the sexually charged, inappropriate way Morrone had behaved toward them.

The women were trying to get the school to acknowledge publicly why he was gone — and how he had harmed them, with little to no intervention over the years by the school.

“I don’t think that I gave my thoughts about Marco the full weight that they deserved until I saw other people giving it its proper weight,” Rush told The Press Democrat. “The knowledge that it was unfinished business lit a fire under me.”

Miranda Rush, a 2014 graduate of Sonoma Academy, is one of seven women pushing for the high school to publicly acknowledge the complaints they made against teacher Marco Morrone, who the school dismissed in 2020. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Miranda Rush, a 2014 graduate of Sonoma Academy, is one of seven women pushing for the high school to publicly acknowledge the complaints they made against teacher Marco Morrone, who the school dismissed in 2020. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Six months later, Rush is one of seven women who graduated from Sonoma Academy to have stepped forward and publicly accused Morrone, a popular humanities teacher with the co-ed campus nearly since its founding two decades ago, of sexual harassment of female students from 2007 to 2014.

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

His misconduct, the women say, involved unnecessary touching in the classroom, soliciting one-on-one meetings off-campus and routinely asking about their romantic lives and intimate feelings, including comments in private writing assignments.

Morrone, they said, exploited the feelings many of them as 16- and 17-year-olds had for him as an instructor and mentor. Now, a dozen or more years after their graduation, as women in their 20s and early 30s, they regard his treatment of them as nothing short of sexual grooming.

“I feel that he was testing my boundaries to see what he could get away with," said Morgan Apostle, a 2014 graduate.

Morgan Apostle, one of the seven women to accuse former Sonoma Academy teacher Marco Morrone of improper conduct and sexually charged, inappropriate behavior.  (Lon Horwedel)
Morgan Apostle, one of the seven women to accuse former Sonoma Academy teacher Marco Morrone of improper conduct and sexually charged, inappropriate behavior. (Lon Horwedel)

"It almost felt like a game of chicken," said Emma McAleavy, a 2008 graduate. "Like, we're going to see how far this will go. And who's going to blink first."

This story is about what these women say happened to them as students of Morrone years ago and how they have since banded to together to call out that abuse and the school leadership they see as responsible. It is based on at least two dozen interviews and conversations over the past month with the women, relatives and fellow classmates who they told about Morrone’s behavior or who witnessed it, as well as experts who treat sexual trauma in minors and others who specialize in the mandatory reporting that is supposed to put a stop to such harm.

Their accounts, summarized in an initial pair of Press Democrat stories in the past week, have included a forceful call for Sonoma Academy to fully acknowledge the alumni and student complaints that led to Morrone’s departure in October.

On Wednesday, to the women’s surprise and some relief, Foehl, the head of school, issued a 1,056-word statement confirming many of their allegations and clarifying Morrone was in fact fired after a 2020 investigation prompted by the complaints of three of the women.

In Morrone, investigators found “a pattern of inappropriate behavior toward female students” who graduated in classes from 2008 through 2014, according to the school. That behavior continued even after Morrone was disciplined and underwent counseling in 2007 — the same year as the first known student complaint about him, according to the women.

Investigators found no evidence Morrone had sexual relationships with students, Foehl said, but his behavior “violated appropriate boundaries,” including “commenting on their physical appearance; asking overly personal questions about their romantic relationships; initiating one-on-one contact with them away from school; encouraging them to share personal information of a sexual nature in writing assignments; and engaging in physical behavior including pinching, making physical contact while sitting and standing too close to female students; and, in one instance, pinning a student during a private one-on-one martial arts training in a closed room on campus.”

Morrone, 50, contacted multiple times by Press Democrat reporters since Tuesday — on the phone, over email and through a pair of letters — has yet to comment on the allegations or the school’s statement. He sent an email Friday that signaled he would provide a written statement. It had not arrived by Saturday evening, and subsequent calls and emails went unreturned.

Momentum amid mediation talks

The school’s acknowledgment marks a new chapter for the seven women in their long pursuit of a public reckoning from the campus about Morrone’s behavior and what they describe as systematic failures to safeguard girls from his harassment.

Together, that quest began in the days after the December 2020 email from Foehl to alumni. Before that, some of the women had made solitary attempts to lodge their complaints with school officials — reports they said appeared to go nowhere.

The seven women, some who knew each other as classmates and others who were strangers, have persisted after Wednesday’s school announcement in their call for a wider investigation by the school, determined to track down others exposed to Morrone’s harassment.

“Sonoma Academy has always presented itself as an exceptional institution: progressive, enlightened, humane, empathetic,” said McAleavy, 30. “This is their opportunity to demonstrate that that is true.”

2008 Sonoma Academy graduate Emma McAleavy is one of seven women pushing for the high school in Santa Rosa to publicly acknowledge the complaints they made against a long-time teacher who the school dismissed in 2020. (Photo by John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
2008 Sonoma Academy graduate Emma McAleavy is one of seven women pushing for the high school in Santa Rosa to publicly acknowledge the complaints they made against a long-time teacher who the school dismissed in 2020. (Photo by John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Before Wednesday, the women agreed with school officials to enter private mediation, geared not for litigation but “restorative justice” — including possible financial restitution for a still-unknown number of students affected by Morrone’s conduct.

Restorative justice is a type of mediation aimed at fully acknowledging the harm done to an injured party and working together to repair it. All parties strive to avoid a lawsuit through confidential discussions. Any party can call off the process at any time.

The women had their first confidential meeting with Sonoma Academy officials Friday afternoon, led by a restorative justice mediator.

In addition to restitution, the women are still seeking a full accounting of the complaints about Morrone that alumni told The Press Democrat they made to school staff throughout his 18-year tenure at Sonoma Academy.

The bulk of those reports were made under the leadership of Janet Durgin, the head of school at Sonoma Academy from its 2001 founding until her June 2020 retirement.

The bulk of those reports were made under the leadership of Janet Durgin, the head of school at Sonoma Academy from its 2001 founding until her June 2020 retirement.

She did not, to the women’s knowledge, launch any outside review or pass their concerns to law enforcement or child protective authorities to trigger an independent investigation.

Durgin, given a detailed list of questions by a Press Democrat reporter at her Santa Rosa home on Friday, responded Saturday with a short statement.

She said she thought she had addressed a 2007 report about Morrone’s behavior “with discipline and counseling for the employee.”

Former Sonoma Academy Head of School, Janet Durgin said she thought she had addressed a 2007 report about Morrone’s behavior “with discipline and counseling for the employee.”
Former Sonoma Academy Head of School, Janet Durgin said she thought she had addressed a 2007 report about Morrone’s behavior “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. “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.”

But Durgin and other school officials were warned on multiple occasions after 2007 about Morrone’s behavior, the seven women and other alumni said. They said the school should have done more to safeguard them as teenage girls against his transgressive and harmful behavior.

Their experiences were ignored at the time, the women said, which exposed successive years of students to Morrone.

“Obviously, and most profoundly, this hurt the victims of this teacher,” said Grace Erny, a 2008 graduate. She does not consider herself a victim of Morrone’s grooming behaviors, rather, she describes herself as a witness of what took place — who is now an advocate for her fellow graduates.**

“But I also want to stress that this hurt every student at the school,” Erny said. “To watch the community of adults turn a blind eye to a powerful man who's manipulating, psychologically harming, harassing children … is an incredibly painful early lesson in misogyny and institutional betrayal.”

A teacher who exploited campus culture

Nestled on 34 acres at the base of Taylor Mountain, with unobstructed views of the Santa Rosa Plain, the Sonoma Academy campus opened in 2008 at a cost of about $35 million. Officials boasted about its state-of-the-art facilities.

When school first opened two decades ago at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, about four miles from the current campus, it had only 45 students.

Now it has 330 — a student body still dwarfed by the graduating classes of most of Santa Rosa’s five public high schools.

Annual tuition is $46,620, by far the highest in the county. About half of the students every year receive a total of nearly $3.9 million in financial aid, according to the school’s website.

The school is an academic powerhouse, with most of its graduates going on to leading colleges and universities. Its speech and debate teams have placed at the top in Bay Area competitions and regularly vie for state championships.

Notes written by former Sonoma Academy teacher Marco Morrone to Linnet Vacha are pictured on her school papers in Seattle, Washington, Wednesday, June 9, 2021. The full note reads, "Linnet: Do you consider yourself one of the bitter and angry? If so, why are you? If not, how would you classify yourself? I think you have a rare mind, one worth exercising in the most interesting ways... you've been doing some great work for me, but what is it that you want? I mean, really?"   (Lindsey Wasson/ For The Press Democrat)
Notes written by former Sonoma Academy teacher Marco Morrone to Linnet Vacha are pictured on her school papers in Seattle, Washington, Wednesday, June 9, 2021. The full note reads, "Linnet: Do you consider yourself one of the bitter and angry? If so, why are you? If not, how would you classify yourself? I think you have a rare mind, one worth exercising in the most interesting ways... you've been doing some great work for me, but what is it that you want? I mean, really?" (Lindsey Wasson/ For The Press Democrat)

But that high-pressure school environment, former students said, was offset by an unconventional campus experience that was strikingly casual in other ways.

It wasn’t unusual to see students or even teachers walk around campus barefoot, alumni said. Classrooms were often equipped with couches for seating and students called the faculty by their first names.

“You're cool if you're considered smart, you're cool if you're friends with the teachers,” said Rush, who graduated in 2014. “The level of intimacy — that was considered cool. It was a part of the culture.”

But that environment provided fertile ground for Morrone’s inappropriate behavior, some former students said.

“I just heard from people all the time, ‘Oh, like, Marco is having a relationship with this student,’ or, ‘Marco has a crush on this student or this student has a crush on Marco.’ But ‘That's just Marco,’” said Apostle, the 2014 graduate.

“I just heard from people all the time, ‘Oh, like, Marco is having a relationship with this student,’ or, ‘Marco has a crush on this student or this student has a crush on Marco.’ But ‘That's just Marco,’” said Apostle, the 2014 graduate.

“I think it's hard to explain to people how normalized it was.”

Morrone was 31 when he joined the Sonoma Academy faculty in July 2002, after stints at Redwood High School in Marin County, according to his LinkedIn page, and Wilbraham and Monson Academy, a boarding school in Wilbraham, Massachusetts.

At Sonoma Academy, he developed a reputation, former students said, of establishing especially close relationships with female students outside of regular classroom activities and instruction. The students considered to be within that circle were known on campus as “Marco’s Girls.”

The label was complicated: It conveyed special status for those girls but also was used derisively by classmates.

Nearly all of the seven women who spoke with The Press Democrat had identified themselves as Marco’s Girls, or heard their peers identify them as such. As a result, they were the subjects of many rumors, they said.

An excerpt from Sonoma Academy graduate Clio Wilde’s 2010 journal reads, “Friday night, I composed a lengthy email explaining to him how I wanted to get together and just sort of talk for a while about whatever. I revised it all weekend and finally sent it this morning. At four I got a response. This was the first sentence: 'I would take any excuse to sit down and talk with you more.' ”
An excerpt from Sonoma Academy graduate Clio Wilde’s 2010 journal reads, “Friday night, I composed a lengthy email explaining to him how I wanted to get together and just sort of talk for a while about whatever. I revised it all weekend and finally sent it this morning. At four I got a response. This was the first sentence: 'I would take any excuse to sit down and talk with you more.' ”

The women said Morrone’s extra attention included private conversations and one-on-one instruction, personalized reading recommendations and after-hours or off-campus meetings.

Looking back now, as adults, the women say much of the behavior crossed the line between the appropriate actions of a teacher and mentor and something more harmful, even predatory.

Physical touch and emotional bonds

Clio Wilde, who graduated in 2011, said she was infatuated with Morrone during her junior year, when he taught her Advanced Placement U.S. History class. So when Morrone suggested she begin meeting him for one-on-one martial arts lessons, she was thrilled.

In addition to teaching creative writing and AP English and humanities, Morrone also was allowed to moonlight as the school’s ad-hoc martial arts instructor. His classes were held in a windowless room off the weight room at Sonoma Academy.

In a journal entry from March 26, 2010, she wrote about her second session with him.

An excerpt from Sonoma Academy graduate Clio Wilde’s 2010 journal reads, “Okay so some serious recent developments have been sprouting up… This Marco thing is absolutely incredible. We had our second class on Wednesday and it was seriously one of the best experiences of my life thus far. We did so much touching. That sounds weird… But it wasn’t, it was totally incredible.”
An excerpt from Sonoma Academy graduate Clio Wilde’s 2010 journal reads, “Okay so some serious recent developments have been sprouting up… This Marco thing is absolutely incredible. We had our second class on Wednesday and it was seriously one of the best experiences of my life thus far. We did so much touching. That sounds weird… But it wasn’t, it was totally incredible.”

“We did so much touching,” she wrote. “That sounds weird… But it wasn’t, it was totally incredible.”

Over several weeks, Wilde, 28, recalled in an interview, “the touching and the physical activity became more intense and aggressive and sexual in nature.”

“There was a lot of restraining, and holding me in what felt like compromising positions,” she said.

“I was so excited to be doing it with him. It felt flirty and fun and secretive,” she added.

In the last of their private sessions, however, the physical contact escalated in a sudden way that frightened her.

Before she was ready, Morrone demonstrated a move where he wound up on top of her after she landed on her back, she said. He straddled her hips and pressed her arms into the padded floor, his face inches from hers.

“It all became too real,” she said. “It jumped from this fantasy into this reality world in a moment, and I felt scared and overwhelmed and very vulnerable.”

Clio Wilde, at her apartment in Los Angeles, Wednesday, June 9, 2021. She is one of seven women who graduated from Sonoma Academy and have come forward with allegations of inappropriate, sexually charged behavior by longtime teacher Marco Morrone, who was eventually fired last year.  (Kelvin Kuo for The Press Democrat)
Clio Wilde, at her apartment in Los Angeles, Wednesday, June 9, 2021. She is one of seven women who graduated from Sonoma Academy and have come forward with allegations of inappropriate, sexually charged behavior by longtime teacher Marco Morrone, who was eventually fired last year. (Kelvin Kuo for The Press Democrat)

“What I believe was happening to me was grooming and one of the main pillars of grooming is desensitization to touch,” said Wilde. “And that is what was happening in this class ... me becoming comfortable with this person touching me.”

Several other women recalled instances of physical contact with Morrone they now regard as inappropriate. For some, the touching fed intense emotional bonds at the center of his close relationships with female students, the women said.

Most of them said they were charmed by him for a time.

Savannah Turley, who as a Sonoma Academy junior took a co-ed martial arts class with Morrone in 2010, also captured her experience in her journal.

2012 Sonoma Academy graduate Savannah Turley is one of seven women pushing for  the school to publicly acknowledge the complaints they made against longtime teacher Marco Morrone, who the school dismissed in 2020. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
2012 Sonoma Academy graduate Savannah Turley is one of seven women pushing for the school to publicly acknowledge the complaints they made against longtime teacher Marco Morrone, who the school dismissed in 2020. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

“While in martial arts, (Morrone’s) hand lingers a little longer than it should on my arm and thigh,” she wrote in an entry from November 2010. “I feel like he touches me more than he touches the boys in the class. But honestly, I don’t mind. Every time he touches me I get kind of nervous and flushed.”

Traci Ippolito, a Santa Rosa marriage and family therapist with experience treating sexual abuse survivors, said the interactions described by the women are classic grooming techniques.

“When a person in a position of power makes an adolescent feel so special because they are the first adult, either male or female, outside of their family that makes them feel seen, heard, understood and even mistakenly loved, the child is likely to fall in love with that person,” Ippolito said.

“This is a common grooming technique.”

Pushing explicit literature

Morrone also recommended and referenced sexually explicit literature in and outside of the classroom, the women said.

Grace Erny is a PhD candidate and a Sonoma Academy alumna from the class of 2008. She is also one of seven women to accuse a former teacher of misconduct and school officials of mishandling years of reports about his behavior. (Grace Erny)
Grace Erny is a PhD candidate and a Sonoma Academy alumna from the class of 2008. She is also one of seven women to accuse a former teacher of misconduct and school officials of mishandling years of reports about his behavior. (Grace Erny)

McAleavy and 2008 classmate Grace Erny said they joined a lunchtime book club Morrone hosted during their sophomore year. The first book they remember him choosing was Vladimir Nabokov’s acclaimed, controversial novel “Lolita.”

The book’s protagonist is a middle-aged literature lecturer who becomes infatuated with a 12-year-old girl, whom he molests after becoming her stepfather.

“I personally remember the fixation on the novel,” said Erny, 30. “He told (students) it was his favorite book.”

Apostle, 25, said Morrone gave her a copy of “Lolita” during her junior year. It was not assigned reading for her class with him and was received more as gift, Apostle said. Turley, 26, said Morrone also recommended the book to her.

“I remember him saying something about how (the child) seduces the narrator. And like, she deserves some of the blame for what happens,” Apostle recalled.

“I remember him saying something about how (the child) seduces the narrator. And like, she deserves some of the blame for what happens,” Apostle recalled.

Turley, who graduated in 2012, said that Morrone passed her a copy of his own unpublished fiction manuscript during her sophomore year, which included several sexual scenes both explicit and implicit.

More tantalizing, she said, Morrone told her one of the characters in the novel was inspired by her.

“I finished Marco’s book, and the character he said he based on me (Gretchen) totally gets it on with Frank Cooper (the guy who is kind of obviously based on Marco),” she wrote in a journal entry from Dec. 28, 2010.

Savannah Turley, pictured here as a student at Sonoma Academy. (Submitted)
Savannah Turley, pictured here as a student at Sonoma Academy. (Submitted)

Wilde, 28, remembered an instance in her creative writing class with Morrone during senior year when she said Morrone challenged students to read aloud a portion of Philip Roth’s 1969 novel “Portnoy’s Complaint” — specifically, the chapter called “Whacking Off,” which focuses in graphic detail on the protagonist’s obsession with masturbation.

A male student took Morrone up on his challenge, she said, and read the entire chapter aloud in class.

“I remember looking over at Marco and he was just like, laughing at the student reading it and the reactions of all of the students,” Wilde said. “Yes, the material, but also, like, laughing at this environment that he had created.”

Cold shoulder for those who recoiled

For several of the seven women there came a point when they realized Morrone’s behavior with them was wrong.

When that point came and they began to withdraw from him, Morrone’s reaction was the same, they said: anger and the inevitable end of the interest and support they’d come to rely on.

Many struggled with the resulting sudden fallout.

McAleavy and Rush said they disengaged from school after falling out of Morrone’s favor. They skipped class, missed assignments.

“I didn't even have any friends or anywhere to go,” Rush said. “I was just like, I'm not going there.”

McAleavy wrote in her journal at the time about wanting to take too many pills and then vomit them up. Before distancing herself from Morrone in her senior year by dropping his AP English class, she shaved her head to show her unease with his attention.

Several of the women said in the wake of the interactions with Morrone, they continued to struggle to trust teachers, mentors and bosses, even years after graduating.

“Suddenly, he had become uninterested in what I had to say, what I was working on,” Wilde said. “(His interest) does feel like it's initially coming from a place of support and appreciation for what you're bringing to his class. And when that goes away, it's really confusing and damaging to your progress as a student.”

They also left Sonoma Academy feeling alone and disappointed with the school staff and faculty.

“It really damaged my trust in all adults at the school,” said Linnet Vacha, a 2008 graduate. “I think it is the main reason why I have not been more involved with Sonoma Academy since graduating … It didn't feel like an environment in which I and other students were protected.”

'Marco is creeping on my sister’

Sonoma Academy graduates said they reported Morrone’s actions to school officials multiple times over many years. Some raised alarm when they were students.

But officials did not see fit to remove Morrone from campus.

McAleavy first reported his behavior to a teacher in August 2007, her senior year. Increasingly unnerved by his behavior, she had decided to transfer out of his AP class and on that day found herself with Morrone and her new teacher in his classroom.

Before she left, she said, Morrone leaned toward her and said, “I hear you’re leaving me.” Then, she said, he pinched the back of her arm hard.

Before she left, she said, Morrone leaned toward her and said, “I hear you’re leaving me.” Then, she said, he pinched the back of her arm hard.

“I remember the other teacher's jaw just hitting the floor,” McAleavy said. Morrone apologized to her a short time later, she said.

McAleavy said her new teacher told her she was going to bring McAleavy’s report to Durgin.

“I was really scared, but you know, that made sense to me,” she said.

Durgin, the retired head of school at Sonoma Academy, declined to comment on McAleavy’s recollection or any of the additional reports alumni said they made in following years.

More than a month later, when word of McAleavy’s unease with Morrone reached him through her replacement teacher, he told that teacher he was “mortified,” McAleavy recalled. He hadn’t intended to make her uncomfortable, she was told, and he wanted to apologize to her again.

She wasn’t having it.

“There was no point during that conversation where I thought that it was at all plausible that his behavior was inadvertent, that it was unconscious, that he was remorseful,” she said.

After that, she heard nothing else from school officials on the matter. Durgin never talked with her directly, nor did anyone else from campus, she said.

Her younger sister, Mae McAleavy, said she had tried around that time to tell a teacher about Morrone’s interactions with her sister. Mae was a sophomore, while Emma was a senior.

“I said, ‘Things have been hard because Marco is creeping on my sister,” Mae McAleavy said she told Michael Peller, a math teacher who was her adviser as well as the Dean of Freshmen at the time.

“I remember my adviser got mad,” she said. He told her not to tell him anything about it, she said.

“He was like, ‘That’s inappropriate. He’s my colleague,’” Mae McAleavy recalled him saying. “I was too young to understand that he was the one with the problem. I was like, ‘I guess I shouldn't talk about that, my bad.’”

Peller, now an assistant head of school at the White Mountain School in Bethlehem, New Hampshire, did not respond to an email requesting comment.

Pressing for action

In 2016, eight years after her graduation from Sonoma Academy, Emma McAleavy remained anxious about Morrone’s continued employment at the school. She contacted Durgin and the two met in person a short time later.

“It seemed like what she thought was going to happen is that I was going to disclose some super lurid, previously undisclosed crime,” McAleavy said. “And that's not what I was there to do at all. I was there to say, ‘Why didn't you fire him?’ And I asked her that.”

Durgin, according to McAleavy, told her Morrone regretted his conduct with her and no one else had made complaints.

“She said, ‘He didn't mean to make you uncomfortable. It was unconscious. He's learned a lot. Since then he's improved his boundaries,’” McAleavy recalled Durgin saying. “And I said to her, ‘It was strategic. And you need to fire him.’ And she made it clear to me in that conversation that it was too late to fire him.”

Linnet Vacha, left, and Grace Erny pictured when they were students at Sonoma Academy. (Submitted)
Linnet Vacha, left, and Grace Erny pictured when they were students at Sonoma Academy. (Submitted)

McAleavy’s 2007 complaint aligns with the date of the discipline and counseling that Morrone underwent after a sustained case of misconduct, according to the Wednesday statement from Foehl to alumni, parents and staff.

After that intervention 14 years ago, however, Morrone’s misconduct did not stop, according to the seven women and the school’s Wednesday statement.

“Morrone continued to develop relationships with certain female students that crossed appropriate professional boundaries,” Foehl said.

He detailed no other action taken by school leaders until the investigation last year that led to Morrone’s firing.

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. This was their first graduation at their new campus. (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. This was their first graduation at their new campus. (Scott Manchester / For The Press Democrat)

Durgin said she thought she had addressed Morrone’s behavior.

In 2007, when a serious issue concerning a student was brought to my attention, I quickly addressed it,” she said in a statement. “I believed it was taken care of with discipline and counseling for the employee.”

Sonoma Academy administrators and board members have refused to answer questions about what school officials knew about Morrone’s behavior over his long tenure.

Foehl, who succeeded Durgin in mid-2020, declined an interview request made through school’s spokeswoman, Lily Thompson. She said board members also would not comment.

Foehl’s message on Wednesday “represents the school’s complete statement on the matter,” she said.

Board Chair Tory Nosler, founding trustee Kitty Angell and trustees Tim Duncan and David Eiseman did not return calls for comment.

The school’s attorney, Susan Ansberry, said her firm does not answer questions from reporters.

In summer 2018, McAleavy made another report about Morrone to another Sonoma Academy administrator.

“I urged her to take me seriously,” McAleavy said. “I told her that things would come out of the woodwork in the future if she didn't take care of it. And that it was going to be really bad for the school if she didn't.”

She said she never heard back.

A path to accountability

In 2019, McAleavy, Erny and Vacha, wrote letters detailing their experiences to the school’s board of trustees. McAleavy decided not to send them.

“Honestly, it just didn't feel like it was going to work. I had already tried three times,” she said. “I didn't trust Janet Durgin. I didn't trust the board. And it felt like taking the risk of asking anyone to believe me, again, was really more than I could handle at that point in my life.”

An announcement from Sonoma Academy in the late spring of 2020 that Durgin was retiring gave Erny a budding hope something could be done about Morrone.

She, McAleavy and Vacha went back to their unsent letters from the previous year.

When Foehl took over as the new head of school in June last year, he sent an email to the alumni network introducing himself and asking for feedback about former students’ experiences at the school. The three women sent him their letters in response.

Foehl asked them to meet with him. The four sat down on Aug. 7, 2020.

“He told us that he was taking the contents of our letters very seriously and that he had hired an independent investigator,” Erny said. The school had hired Amy Oppenheimer, of Berkeley-based Oppenheimer Investigations Group, which specializes in workplace and school investigations.

Over the next several weeks, Erny, Vacha and McAleavy spoke with Oppenheimer, who they said asked each of them for names of other graduates that she could talk to for the investigation.

Most of the women who spoke with The Press Democrat said they had been interviewed by or given statements to Oppenheimer.

But a few, including Apostle and Rush, said they were never contacted.

While the investigation was unfolding, Morrone continued teaching, though virtually, due to the 2020 pandemic.

On Oct. 31, Vacha, Erny and McAleavy met with Foehl again at his invitation. The women said Foehl told them Morrone had been fired two days earlier. The terms of a separation agreement were being finalized, he said.

It was an instant relief to the three women. But they also had other concerns.

“I said, ‘It’s really meaningful that you have handled this appropriately,’” McAleavy recalled. “‘And it makes a difference that you've done the right thing.’

“And then I said, ‘And that's 30% of what needs to happen. And here's what needs to happen now. You need to tell the truth. And you need to make amends.’”

Strength in numbers

But word of Morrone’s dismissal didn’t reach Sonoma Academy alumni until mid-December, and even then Foehl didn’t say much beyond that he was no longer employed by the school.

McAleavy, Vacha and Erny had already banded together to make those reasons known.

Others who would join them in the coming months were still hesitant to talk about their experiences.

Wilde agonized in September before deciding she was willing to speak with Oppenheimer. She waited for a phone call but ended up reaching out to Oppenheimer herself.

It was one of the first times she had told anyone about the private martial arts lessons, the intimate emails and the exposure to sexually explicit literature. Wilde had never told even her closest friends until 2020, she said.

Linnet Vacha poses for a portrait at her home in Seattle, Washington, Wednesday, June 9, 2021. Vacha, who graduated from Sonoma Academy in 2008, says her 11th grade AP English and History teacher Marco Morrone often showered her with attention and left inappropriately personal or strange comments on many of her papers.  (Lindsey Wasson/ For The Press Democrat)
Linnet Vacha poses for a portrait at her home in Seattle, Washington, Wednesday, June 9, 2021. Vacha, who graduated from Sonoma Academy in 2008, says her 11th grade AP English and History teacher Marco Morrone often showered her with attention and left inappropriately personal or strange comments on many of her papers. (Lindsey Wasson/ For The Press Democrat)

“I, for a long time, didn't want to investigate it even personally, because I felt like so much of myself would unravel if I looked too closely at this relationship,” Wilde said.

She contacted McAleavy before agreeing to speak with Oppenheimer. Later, as McAleavy’s Vacha’s and Erny’s communication with Foehl stretched into the winter, Wilde joined them in pressing for action beyond Morrone’s firing.

After Foehl’s email went out to alumni in mid-December, Rush called Wilde first. Apostle learned about the movement for accountability from Rush’s Instagram posts. Turley joined the group in May.

One by one, the women began to find each other.

Marco’s Girls no more

Rush’s first Zoom meeting with Wilde, Vacha, Erny and McAleavy in January blew her away. The women had spreadsheets, a Google Drive folder, notes and transcripts from meetings, among other materials.

“That gave me further confidence to participate, because I felt like I wasn’t just going to be doggy paddling alone,” she said.

Eventually, the women came to adopt a new name for themselves: The Athena Project.

“I made a Google folder. And I was almost going to type Marco's Girls and have that be the folder name,” McAleavy said. “And I was like, I don't want that to be the folder name. So I Googled, ‘Who is the goddess of justice?’

“Great. We're the Athena Project.”

They launched their website Thursday.

Each of the women has conducted additional outreach to alumni, since Sonoma Academy has done little to locate additional victims after Oppenheimer’s investigation wrapped up last fall, the women said.

Erny, who is pursuing her doctorate in archaeology in Greece, began keeping a record of the time she has devoted to the work. As of Friday, she estimates she’s given more than 120 hours.

“Between ... meetings with people, meetings with the group, meetings with the school, meetings with the lawyer, calling alumni, doing outreach work, it's been like a part-time job for months, almost a year now,” she said. “All of us are doing this work constantly and it's been very intense, really emotionally difficult.”

Vacha said she delayed the start of nursing school to focus on the shared project.

“I realized I can't imagine doing that, when this is taking up so much of my life, and so much of my energy,” she said.

The commitment is one of several reasons why the women chose to pursue a restorative justice process with the help of Petlauma-based attorney Larry King, who took them on as pro-bono clients in January. A lawsuit, they fear, could drag on indefinitely.

“It's important to know that ... we didn't set out to spend a year of our lives on this,” McAleavy said. “And, you know, it's awesome that we're strong enough and powerful enough and smart enough and sophisticated enough to be able to do really great things on our own.

“But, you know, we wish it wasn't like this.”

** Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify Grace Erny’s perspective on her own experience as a Sonoma Academy student and the impact she believes the behavior of former teacher Marco Morrone has had on her.

You can reach staff writers Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com and Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.

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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