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Sonoma Academy graduates, school leaders poised to begin restorative justice talks over harassment as students

Grace Erny woke up to 376 text messages Thursday morning.

Erny, 30, had been sound asleep in Athens, Greece, where she is pursuing her doctorate in archaeology, when news spilled out from Sonoma Academy and into its wider school community: a public message from the campus that a popular teacher who was dismissed eight months ago had been fired over his inappropriate, sexually charged behavior toward female students.

“I guess I had a feeling of shock, because I didn’t expect to wake up to that,” said Erny.

She is one of seven women who graduated a dozen or more years ago from the prestigious private high school in Santa Rosa who have been pushing for such an acknowledgment since longtime humanities teacher Marco Morrone’s sudden dismissal in October.

The extraordinary statement Wednesday from Sonoma Academy Head of School Tucker Foehl made the link between his firing and longstanding complaints by some of the seven women about Morrone’s misconduct.

The timing of that admission was also a surprise to Erny and her fellow alumnae. Together with their lawyer, they are poised to meet with school leaders on Friday for the first session in a process geared toward restorative justice for the group of former students.

Sonoma Academy officials confirmed late Thursday they would keep the appointment, said Larry King, the women’s Petaluma-based attorney.

“I think that it is clear that we are in disagreement with Sonoma Academy about a few things. We knew that before they released their statement,” said Emma McAleavy, another of the alumnae involved in the process. “We’re going to do a restorative process with them to see if we can get on the same page.”

Restorative justice is a type of mediation aimed at repairing harm through a collaborative approach that can sidestep litigation. Parties meet for discussions that are considered confidential. Either side can call off the process at any time.

School representatives refused to comment Thursday on that process, Foehl’s revelatory statement or the sweeping allegations made against Morrone by some of his former female students.

“Our firm does not respond to press inquiries concerning our clients,” Susan Ansberry, Sonoma Academy’s attorney, wrote in response to a detailed list of questions from The Press Democrat. “All inquiries should be addressed to the school’s communications director.”

Foehl and members of Sonoma Academy’s board of trustees also declined to comment, referring reporters to Foehl’s statement.

Board Chair Tory Nosler and founding trustee Kitty Angell could not be reached Thursday.

The women, who attended the school at different points from 2004 through 2014, have accused Morrone, who started at the school in 2002, of repeatedly crossing emotional and physical boundaries with them — from improper touching to soliciting private meetings and routinely delving into their romantic lives and intimate feelings.

In interviews over the past four weeks with The Press Democrat, they detailed a pattern of sexual harassment and manipulation by Morrone that left them dealing with prolonged emotional trauma.

School officials knew of concerns over Morrone’s behavior as far back as 2007, when McAleavy, a senior at the time, made the first of her complaints about him. Foehl’s statement Wednesday revealed that he had been disciplined and undergone counseling at that time “for his comments and actions toward a student.”

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

The statement detailed no other intervention by school authorities until the investigation in 2020 that led to Morrone’s dismissal.

He has been banned from the campus and the school has not received any reports of Morrone engaging in sexually inappropriate conduct more recently than 2014, according to Foehl, who took over as head of school in mid-2020.

The Press Democrat emailed a list of questions to the school Wednesday evening and Thursday morning seeking more information about what school officials knew at the time about Morrone’s behavior, details about the 2007 discipline and why it had taken campus leaders eight months to disclose the reasons for Morrone’s dismissal last fall.

The Press Democrat also sought to understand what actions, if any were taken to monitor Morrone after he was disciplined and whether the school would conduct a wider investigation to identify more potential victims — a step called for by the seven women now involved in mediation talks.

The school declined to answer questions.

“We are going to respectfully decline the interview request,” Sonoma Academy spokeswoman Lily Thompson said in an email. “The letter from Tucker Foehl represents the school’s complete statement on the matter.”

McAleavy said her 2007 report reached Janet Durgin, the founding head of school who retired in June 2020.

McAleavy, 30, said she made additional complaints after graduating, including one with Durgin directly. To her knowledge, no action was taken against Morrone, McAleavy said.

Foehl’s statement Wednesday made no mention of the reports to school officials before 2020 about Morrone’s behavior, an omission that McAleavy said left her “a little surprised.”

Durgin did not respond to detailed voicemails left Wednesday evening and Thursday morning seeking her comment on allegations by the graduates that she and other school leaders failed to safeguard students from Morrone.

Morrone since Tuesday has not responded to multiple requests for comment left by phone, email and in a letter handed over Wednesday at his Petaluma home and one sent by certified mail. Press Democrat reporters on Thursday left another voicemail offering him an opportunity to comment.

After seeing their accounts shared publicly for the first time Wednesday, Erny and other alumnae described feeling a weight lift.

“This process is not over, but it feels to me like a major turning point and relief,” Erny said. “We’ve tried to be so strategic and careful and that can be a really oppressive feeling. Now it’s just out in the world and that feels very freeing.”

The seven women launched a website Thursday afternoon on behalf of their group, which they call The Athena Project. The website provides information about mental health and ways for alumni to share their stories.

They welcomed the prospects of working with Sonoma Academy through the restorative justice process.

“I personally am really committed to giving that process my all,” McAleavy said. “I expect them to engage in good faith.”

Erny described her mindset as “maybe more pessimistic” that the mediation will lead to a mutual understanding. But she’s determined to show up.

When she logs on to the Friday Zoom meeting it will be 12:30 a.m. Saturday in her time zone.

You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay. Reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

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