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.”
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.
"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.”