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