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Sonoma Academy graduates who reported teacher misconduct, abuse weigh in on school’s widening scandal

How to reach our reporters

If you want to share your story

Press Democrat reporters Kaylee Tornay and Martin Espinoza are continuing to cover alumni allegations of sexual harassment by a longtime former Sonoma Academy teacher and claims the school failed to safeguard students.

Here is how to contact them:

Kaylee Tornay: 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay

Martin Espinoza: 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno

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Resources to combat sexual abuse, support survivors

Verity: Sonoma County’s rape, crisis and trauma center, www.ourverity.org, 707-545-7273

Sonoma County Family Justice Center: www.fjcsc.org, 707-565-8255

ValorUS: formerly California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, is a statewide coalition of rape crisis centers committed to ending sexual violence and has a California Rape Crisis Center Directory, www.valor.us

Redwood Empire Chapter of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists: www.recamft.org

National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-4673, online.rainn.org

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Sonoma Academy coverage

To read more stories and see the PD’s complete coverage, visit: pressdemocrat.com/SonomaAcademy.

Two Sonoma Academy graduates expressed a mixture of anguish and relief Tuesday in the wake of a stunning report that revealed a longtime teacher at the elite Santa Rosa college prep school engaged in sexually charged misconduct with at least 34 students and that two other staff members had sexually abused three students.

The report, emailed to students, parents, staff and alumni Monday evening, is the school’s broadest and most public reckoning to date with the harmful behavior students say they experienced for years under the tutelage of Marco Morrone, a humanities instructor from 2002 through 2020.

It was spurred by the accounts of seven women who came forward in a Press Democrat investigation in June to share their accounts of Morrone’s inappropriate behavior, including sexual grooming of female students, and school officials’ lapses in safeguarding them.

The school’s hired investigators, with the New York law firm Debevoise and Plimpton, documented a wider group of affected students and additional staff misconduct and abuse. In their most damning conclusion, investigators said top school administrators were unresponsive and even dismissive of student complaints about staff misconduct over years — failures that “led to a culture where students believed Morrone's behavior was sanctioned,” according to the report.

“I think it’s really sad,” said Emma McAleavy, a 2008 graduate and one of seven women who have spoken out about Morrone’s behavior and what they said were repeated shortfalls by school officials in addressing it.

“Thirty-four students, that’s a lot of people.”

The report also detailed the experiences of a student who was sexually abused by an assistant girls soccer coach in 2002 and 2003, and two other students sexually abused by a filmmaking instructor who taught a single course at the school in 2004.

“It’s hard to know which things to be most enraged about,” McAleavy said. “Just the level of negligence is astonishing.”

Clio Wilde, a 2011 graduate, said it was painful but not surprising to read about the extent of the inappropriate behavior and abuse students endured over years at Sonoma Academy.

“I was not surprised to find out that there were more people who perpetrated harm to to other students,” she said.

Still, “I think we all recognized ourselves in a lot of other people experiences and that again is really, really chilling.”

McAleavy, Wilde and five other female graduates went public with their accounts in the Press Democrat investigation this summer, as well as on their own platform, called The Athena Project.

Clio Wilde poses for a portrait at her apartment in Los Angeles, Wednesday, June 9, 2021. The Sonoma Academy graduate has come forward to accuse longtime teacher Marco Morrone of improper conduct and sexually charged, inappropriate behavior.  (Kelvin Kuo / For The Press Democrat)
Clio Wilde poses for a portrait at her apartment in Los Angeles, Wednesday, June 9, 2021. The Sonoma Academy graduate has come forward to accuse longtime teacher Marco Morrone of improper conduct and sexually charged, inappropriate behavior. (Kelvin Kuo / For The Press Democrat)

Campus leaders have not met with reporters or answered media questions.

Head of School Tucker Foehl and board president Dr. Tory Nosler, a local physician, did not return phone calls seeking comment Tuesday.

Foehl declined to answer questions about the report’s explosive findings.

“We’ve received your message, but just won’t be able to consider these questions this afternoon,” wrote Lily Thompson, Sonoma Academy’s communications official, in response to a list of emailed questions from the newspaper. “The letter from the Board of Trustees represents the school’s statement on the investigation.”

The Monday evening letter from the Board of Trustees said officials were “heartbroken by the events detailed within this report,” and included both an apology and a commitment to improve safeguards for students.

“We have no greater duty than to protect the students in our care, and we take responsibility for the harm done to former students, as well as the failures of those whose responsibility it was to prevent and respond to such harm,” the statement read. “We are committed to the healing process for our alumni survivors of misconduct, and to working to protect the students and (staff and faculty) members who call SA home.”

Former Head of School Janet Durgin, whose response to student complaints was faulted by investigators, issued a written statement Tuesday apologizing for “any missteps” during her tenure.

Durgin, who led the school from its 2001 founding until her retirement in 2020, had been aware of Morrone’s transgressive behavior with female students as early as 2004. However, she did not take steps to discipline him beyond assigning him counseling, investigators said in their report.

Janet Durgin, the Head of School at the Sonoma Academy, talks about Jess Jackson, the founder of the school at his memorial at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa, California on Thursday, May 12, 2011. (The Press Democrat file)
Janet Durgin, the Head of School at the Sonoma Academy, talks about Jess Jackson, the founder of the school at his memorial at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa, California on Thursday, May 12, 2011. (The Press Democrat file)

In one instance in 2007, the report said, the school’s attorneys had recommended administrators file a mandated report with law enforcement about Morrone’s behavior toward a female student. But campus leaders did not alert authorities or file a report, investigators found.

"I want to apologize heartfully for any missteps during my tenure. We knew when we began a school charged with the care of adolescents that it needed to be safe in every regard — emotionally, socially, physically,“ Durgin said in her statement.

”Despite best efforts and intentions, some policies and procedures were inadequate. Any mistakes made were not for lack of deep commitment to the health, safety, education and care of our students.“

Durgin also disputed some of the report’s findings regarding her actions.

"Decisions regarding the issues investigated were made collaboratively, involving various administrators, lawyers, and trustees. While I perceive some factual inaccuracies and disagree with some of the conclusions in the report as it pertains to me, as the founding head of school, I take responsibility for the ultimate outcomes.“

She did not specify what findings she rejected about her reported inaction or dismissal of student complaints about staff misconduct.

McAleavy, who made two reports about Morrone to Durgin and a third report to another school official, said she suspected the excerpt in the Debevoise report detailing the school’s 2007 failure to follow its attorneys’ advice about contacting law enforcement was based on her experience. She talked to investigators in August and again in September.

McAleavy said she felt physically ill reading over the report, including the rationale given for treatment of student complaints attributed by investigators to an unidentified Sonoma Academy employee: “...we cannot take the word of a student over a faculty member.”

“There’s the element that nothing is really surprising, but still it’s stunning to read those quotes and to hear the way that the administration just fully dismissed a lot of people, but me in particular,” she said.

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 longtime teacher who the school dismissed in 2020. (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 longtime teacher who the school dismissed in 2020. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

The school’s report called out multiple instances over many years in which Durgin and other school officials were informed of complaints about Morrone’s misconduct and abusive behavior by other staff members but failed to take sufficient action to safeguard students.

They did not go to law enforcement in cases where they were informed about sexual abuse of underage students by two other employees, investigators said.

Shannon Rake was the assistant girls’ soccer coach accused of sexually abusing a female student while she was employed by the school from 2002 until 2003.

At the time of the alleged offenses, Rake, a Santa Rosa High School graduate, would have just graduated from Sonoma State University, where she led the Seawolves soccer squad as lead goal scorer in 1999 and 2000.

In 2003, Rake was hired on at Sports City indoor soccer facility, where she worked her way up to general manager over her 14-year tenure in operations and coaching.

Since 2018, she has worked for a marine conservation nonprofit while periodically teaching hip-hop dance to special needs students at Movement Lab in Santa Rosa, as well as serving in leadership roles for local organizations providing sports and other activities for at-risk and disabled youths and adults.

Rake, 42, did not return calls for comment Monday and Tuesday. The Press Democrat was unable to reach representatives for Sports City and Movement Lab concerning Rake’s time with those organizations.

Adrian Belic was the filmmaking teacher who was accused of sexually abusing two students after his course ended at Sonoma Academy in 2004.

Adrian Belic at the 22nd Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival in Santa Barbara, California. (Ray Mickshaw / WireImage)
Adrian Belic at the 22nd Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival in Santa Barbara, California. (Ray Mickshaw / WireImage)

Before his introduction to Sonoma Academy, where Belic presented his work during an assembly and was then invited to teach a course, he and his brother, Roko, had been heralded for their work on a 1999 film called “Genghis Blues.” It chronicles the journey of a sightless San Francisco blues singer to a remote region of Russia to pursue an interest in Tuvan throat singing.

The film won the Audience Award for Documentary at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for a 2000 Academy Award as Best Documentary Feature.

Adrian Belic, 51, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The misconduct by Morrone, 51, extended over a longer time period, affecting students from classes across nearly his entire 18-year tenure, investigators found. It involved grooming multiple students “for his own purposes,” investigators said, including sexual contact.

Investigators found he had sexual relations with at least one student after she graduated.

“Examples of Morrone’s inappropriate behavior included directly or indirectly intimate, sexual and deeply personal journal entries as part of class assignments; inappropriately touching students; developing close emotional bonds with students through one on one meetings and emails; recommending graphic, sexually explicit or mature books; and giving students copies of his own sexually explicit manuscripts, one of which detailed a graphic sexual relationship between a student and her high school teacher,” investigators wrote in the report.

McAleavy disputed Durgin’s assertion that the campus shortfalls rested in flawed policies and practices.

“Yes, they were inadequate,” McAleavy said. “But, more importantly, Janet’s judgment was inadequate.“

The counseling Durgin mandated for Morrone in 2007 after a student complaint about his inappropriate touching of female student was one example of the school’s failed intervention, investigators found.

He was fired in 2020 after an investigation launched by Foehl after he became the new head of school.

The release of the new report was a key goal of the Athena Project, and McAleavy and others applauded the school for releasing it in full.

But the mediation process with the school continues, according to the women’s lawyer, Larry King. And the next steps toward repairing harm are equally critical, they said.

“Just getting the truth out there isn’t enough,” McAleavy said.

“That doesn’t make up for the fact that our educations were derailed, our development was derailed because this institution was totally negligent. And that’s why restitution in the form of financial compensation is a critical component of accountability and of healing for the community.

“We’re going to definitely be working with SA to make sure we’re comfortable with all the elements of that plan,” she said.

Staff Writer Mary Callahan contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay.

How to reach our reporters

If you want to share your story

Press Democrat reporters Kaylee Tornay and Martin Espinoza are continuing to cover alumni allegations of sexual harassment by a longtime former Sonoma Academy teacher and claims the school failed to safeguard students.

Here is how to contact them:

Kaylee Tornay: 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay

Martin Espinoza: 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno

_____

Resources to combat sexual abuse, support survivors

Verity: Sonoma County’s rape, crisis and trauma center, www.ourverity.org, 707-545-7273

Sonoma County Family Justice Center: www.fjcsc.org, 707-565-8255

ValorUS: formerly California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, is a statewide coalition of rape crisis centers committed to ending sexual violence and has a California Rape Crisis Center Directory, www.valor.us

Redwood Empire Chapter of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists: www.recamft.org

National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-4673, online.rainn.org

_____

Sonoma Academy coverage

To read more stories and see the PD’s complete coverage, visit: pressdemocrat.com/SonomaAcademy.

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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