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Sonoma Academy male graduates speak out on school’s handling of teacher’s misconduct

The seven women who stepped forward with their stories from Sonoma Academy have called on the school to conduct a comprehensive investigation into Marco Morrone’s inappropriate behavior and misconduct toward students.

On Saturday, Head of School Tucker Foehl said the campus had agreed to that step as he announced a new, wider look into complaints about Morrone, allegations of staff or volunteer misconduct affecting students, and school officials’ handling of related student and alumni reports over the years.

The seven women, who banded together as The Athena Project, also are pushing for a plan for restitution to compensate victims for expenses such as mental health services to deal with what they experienced at the school.

The women, all of whom graduated a dozen or more years ago from Sonoma Academy, are in mediation talks with school officials. The confidential process is the latest step in yearslong bid by several of the women to call out Morrone’s conduct and hold the school publicly accountable for inaction in the face of multiple reports about him from students and alumni between at least 2007 and 2020.

The school’s 2020 investigation affirmed many of the allegations the women have made, and Foehl said Morrone’s inappropriate behavior was found to have continued for at least seven years after he was disciplined in the wake of a student’s report in 2007. Foehl said the school was not aware of any allegations from after 2014.

How to reach the reporters

Press Democrat reporters Kaylee Tornay and Martin Espinoza are continuing to cover alumni allegations of sexual harassment at Sonoma Academy 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

Click here to read the complete coverage on Sonoma Academy.

Three men who graduated from Sonoma Academy a decade or more ago are joining seven female schoolmates in sounding a public alarm about inappropriate behavior by a former longtime teacher, adding to the accounts of alumni who say the school failed to intervene and halt the misconduct.

Two of the men, now in their late 20s, recounted how they tried to alert school officials to the risks they saw in the continued employment of humanities teacher Marco Morrone. In addition to English and history, Morrone also led martial arts classes at the Santa Rosa school, including group and one-on-one sessions with boys and girls.

All three male graduates said they witnessed Morrone interacting with female classmates in ways they felt even at the time were inappropriate. They cited inappropriate physical contact and comments as well as Morrone’s hiring of female students to babysit for him at his house — something the campus code of conduct now prohibits.

“It just started to get to me more and more,” said Matt Reynoso, a 2011 graduate who said he tried to call attention to Morrone’s behavior in his senior year and again in 2019, eight years after graduating.

Reynoso, 28, said the rise of the #MeToo movement four years ago amid a wave of high-profile sexual harassment and abuse scandals made him think back to his alma mater, Sonoma County’s lone private, independent college-prep school, where annual tuition last year was nearly $47,000.

“I remember watching all this unfold and I was like, ‘Oh, well, Sonoma Academy’s going to get screwed,’” he said in a recent interview, speaking about how he viewed the school’s liabilities. Accounts shared by female classmates about Morrone’s relationships with students contributed to the feeling, he said.

On Saturday, Head of School Tucker Foehl said the campus had agreed to launch a second, wider investigation into student and alumni complaints about Morrone — a step the seven women have campaigned for after he was fired in October.

Investigators also will focus on student and alumni reports of misconduct by other staff or campus volunteers, as well as school officials’ handling of related reports over the years, Foehl said.

The school’s first investigation into Morrone, in 2020, confirmed many of the claims the women have publicly made about his behavior. Investigators found he repeatedly “violated appropriate boundaries with students who were members of the classes of 2008 through 2014,” according to a written statement from Foehl.

The women say he acted in a manipulative way that they say amounted to grooming. They have accused him of unnecessary touching in the classroom, soliciting one-on-one interactions off-campus, exposing them to sexually explicit literature outside of class and prying into their romantic lives and intimate feelings, including comments in private writing assignments, they say.

Morrone, 50, has not been accused of sexual assault. The seven women who have accused him of sexual harassment have not made reports to law enforcement, nor has the school. As of Friday, no civil lawsuits had been filed against him or Sonoma Academy.

Morrone has declined multiple requests for an interview and has not responded to written questions from The Press Democrat over the past two weeks.

Some of the men who were schoolmates of the women also recounted their own troubling run-ins with Morrone, including overly aggressive behavior they said they experienced in his martial arts classes

This story is based on 10 interviews in recent weeks with Sonoma Academy graduates, a longtime school counselor who is speaking out for the first time and a martial arts expert, as well as statements from school officials.

“People should know,” said Bolyn Smothers, another 2011 classmate. “Certainly, it's going to hurt the school for this to come out. And you know, what hurts more is that it was allowed to happen in the first place.”

A personal impact

Reynoso and Smothers are friends with Clio Wilde, who also graduated in 2011. Wilde is one of the seven women have who recounted their experiences with Morrone in interviews over the past month with The Press Democrat.

Before he was fired last year, Morrone had been a teacher at Sonoma Academy since 2002, a year after the school’s founding. His departure was first announced in December, but up until a June 9 statement from Foehl, Sonoma Academy students and alumni knew little about what led to his exit.

Foehl acknowledged for the first time in that statement he had fired Morrone after an investigation found he “engaged in conduct that violated appropriate boundaries with students.”

The seven women who stepped forward with their stories from Sonoma Academy have called on the school to conduct a comprehensive investigation into Marco Morrone’s inappropriate behavior and misconduct toward students.

On Saturday, Head of School Tucker Foehl said the campus had agreed to that step as he announced a new, wider look into complaints about Morrone, allegations of staff or volunteer misconduct affecting students, and school officials’ handling of related student and alumni reports over the years.

The seven women, who banded together as The Athena Project, also are pushing for a plan for restitution to compensate victims for expenses such as mental health services to deal with what they experienced at the school.

The women, all of whom graduated a dozen or more years ago from Sonoma Academy, are in mediation talks with school officials. The confidential process is the latest step in yearslong bid by several of the women to call out Morrone’s conduct and hold the school publicly accountable for inaction in the face of multiple reports about him from students and alumni between at least 2007 and 2020.

The school’s 2020 investigation affirmed many of the allegations the women have made, and Foehl said Morrone’s inappropriate behavior was found to have continued for at least seven years after he was disciplined in the wake of a student’s report in 2007. Foehl said the school was not aware of any allegations from after 2014.

How to reach the reporters

Press Democrat reporters Kaylee Tornay and Martin Espinoza are continuing to cover alumni allegations of sexual harassment at Sonoma Academy 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

Click here to read the complete coverage on Sonoma Academy.

Wilde, 28, was one of the graduates who spoke with the investigator last summer. She saw one of her experiences mentioned among the examples of inappropriate behavior cited by Foehl.

Clio Wilde poses for a portrait at her apartment in Los Angeles, Wednesday, June 9, 2021. Wilde is one of seven alumnae from Sonoma Academy who have come forward with stories of inappropriate behavior and misconduct by longtime teacher Marco Morrone, who was fired last year.  (Kelvin Kuo for The Press Democrat)
Clio Wilde poses for a portrait at her apartment in Los Angeles, Wednesday, June 9, 2021. Wilde is one of seven alumnae from Sonoma Academy who have come forward with stories of inappropriate behavior and misconduct by longtime teacher Marco Morrone, who was fired last year. (Kelvin Kuo for The Press Democrat)

It was an instance in a private martial arts lesson with Morrone during her junior year, when she said he threw her across his body and pinned her against the floor, straddling her waist, with his face inches from hers, making intense eye contact.

That frightening experience was just one of his transgressions, Wilde said. Morrone also confided in her about his private life and sought similar intimacy with her, she said. At his invitation — one she said later made her uncomfortable — she also babysat his children once at his Petaluma home.

The fallout of those experiences caused long-term emotional trauma, Wilde said, affecting her self-worth as a student and a young woman.

Reynoso and Smothers, who remain in touch with Wilde, both referenced her experiences in the reports they made to school staff and in interviews. Smothers said Wilde told him when they were students about the one-on-one martial arts classes and the babysitting she did for Morrone.

“That was always kind of weird,” Reynoso said. “It's like, OK, well, why is she over at Marco’s house? And why are they doing this after-school martial arts thing? Like what's going on?”

Reynoso and Smothers also were acquainted as students with Savannah Turley, another of the seven women, who graduated in 2012. Turley told The Press Democrat that Morrone gave her a copy of his own unpublished fiction manuscript during her sophomore year, which included several sexual scenes both explicit and implicit. A character he told her he based on her became romantically involved with the protagonist styled after him, she said.

Those experiences, some relayed long ago and others shared publicly for the first time in a Press Democrat story a week ago, have spurred the fellow male graduates to step forward, they said.

“'I’ve been given the easy part,” Smothers said. “So I need to show up if I want to consider myself a friend and an ally to these people.”

Student reports, counselor talks

Reynoso said that he told the school’s counselor, Carolyn McAleavy, that he was concerned about Morrone’s behavior with his female classmates in 2011, his senior year.

McAleavy, Reynoso said, told him she had heard similar concerns from students before. But he never saw any evidence of action taken in response.

“I got confirmations I needed … from an official school representative that they were aware that there were at least talks that people had been made uncomfortable (by Morrone),” he said.

McAleavy, speaking publicly for the first time about the school’s handling of concerns about Morrone, told The Press Democrat she couldn’t comment on specific interactions she had with students as a counselor. But she said she passed on reports of student concerns to other administrators.

“When students brought concerns to me, as of course students do, when they involved any of the adults at the school, or anything that involved their experience as a student, I took concerns to individuals at the school who had decision-making power,” McAleavy said.

McAleavy is the mother of Emma McAleavy, a 2008 graduate who said she reported on four occasions her concerns about Morrone’s behavior, including comments she felt were sexually charged and physical touch she felt was inappropriate.

The first of those complaints she made in 2007, to a faculty member who relayed her concerns to then-Head of School Janet Durgin, McAleavy said. The last complaint went to Foehl shortly after he took over as head of school in June 2020.

Carolyn McAleavy said she knew little at the time about Emma’s first report about Morrone.

“I did not know the details of it,” Carolyn McAleavy said. “I was aware of the matter and the disturbance and I felt the response was inadequate.”

Sonoma Academy’s June 9 message to alumni referred to an incident involving a student in 2007 that prompted the administration to require Morrone undergo “discipline and counseling.” The timing coincides with Emma McAleavy’s first report, but the school has not provided additional information in response to questions from The Press Democrat.

Carolyn McAleavy, who is in the last month of her 18-year tenure at Sonoma Academy, declined to answer a question about her stance on Morrone and the school’s response to mounting complaints about him. Emma McAleavy said she tried two more times to escalate her concerns, relaying them directly to Durgin in 2016 and to another administrator in 2018.

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)

Emma McAleavy said her mother has been nothing but supportive.

“My mom has been my number one supporter throughout this long and painful process,” she said. “Without her support, I never would have gotten this far. I am so grateful to her for always standing by me and sticking up for me.”

Carolyn McAleavy, who handed in her resignation in March, plans to continue to work at her private practice. She declined to give a reason for her departure.

A growing discomfort

Looking back on 2011, Reynoso expressed frustration that his reports didn’t trigger any action that he knew about. But after graduating, he moved on. So did Smothers.

The two young men stayed in contact, and were roommates in Los Angeles in 2019. During that time, they hung out with other Sonoma Academy graduates, as well as friends who didn’t attend the school.

When they discussed Morrone together, Smothers said, friends who hadn’t attended Sonoma Academy were taken aback about the behavior the alumni described.

“It took someone who was removed enough from the situation to sort of be horrified by it in a way that we were conditioned not to be, where I was then like, ‘OK. I need to do this,’” Smothers said.

He contacted Durgin on July 6, 2019, by text message, asking her to talk on the phone. They talked a few days later, Smothers said.

Read the texts between Smothers and Durgin here.

He told Durgin about experiences he had heard from Wilde and Turley, but left out their names, in an attempt to respect their privacy.

Smothers said he was impressed by how seriously Durgin appeared to take his report. She asked follow-up questions and for him to contact the women whose stories he referenced. She also asked him to convey a request that they reach out to her.

“I wasn’t aware of any of Emma McAleavy’s reportings,” Smothers said. “I genuinely thought I might be the first person to have explicitly and formally come forward.”

Bo Smothers gets a hug from his father, Tommy Smothers, during the Sonoma Academy graduation ceremony on Friday, June 10, 2011.
Bo Smothers gets a hug from his father, Tommy Smothers, during the Sonoma Academy graduation ceremony on Friday, June 10, 2011.

He reached out only to Wilde after his conversation with Durgin, he said. He didn’t feel comfortable contacting any of the other students about such a delicate topic. He hadn’t spoken with Turley since graduating.

Wilde considered for a day before she responded.

“I texted him back and said, ‘I don't want anything to do with this.’” she said. “I wasn't ready to process that chapter of my life. I wasn't ready to open that can of worms.”

Smothers told Durgin he wasn’t able to reach anyone willing to talk. She followed up, asking if he knew why people were hesitant, and again after that, according to screenshots of text messages Smothers provided to The Press Democrat. The text chain shows Smothers stopped responding.

Durgin, who led the school since its 2001 founding until her retirement, declined to address the specifics of Smothers’ and Reynoso’s accounts. She issued a short statement, the third she has shared since the women’s allegations became public two weeks ago.

“This is a complex situation and the details matter,” she said. “Some of what has been stated is accurate, some is not, some has been misinterpreted. I am not at liberty to go into further details at this time, but look forward to doing so in the near future. I know this is incredibly painful for everyone involved, and if they accept, I hope to someday sit down with my former students, listen deeply and hear all they have to say.”

Similar conversations prompted Reynoso to consider speaking up again around the same time as Smothers in 2019. It took him a few more months, however, until February 2020, to send an email to Durgin and Ellie Dwight, the assistant head of school.

In his email, which he shared with The Press Democrat, Reynoso was irate.

“I know factually that it's been brought to the attention of Sonoma Academy's administration multiple times by independent individuals who want justice,” he wrote about Morrone. “I hope you think of all the young girls he's taken advantage of every night while you try to sleep.”

Durgin and Dwight followed up shortly with him on the phone, Reynoso said, and the conversation calmed him down.

“Ellie and Janet insisted that they didn’t know anything — or hadn’t until very soon before that phone call,” he said. “They also swore up and down that they had no grounds to terminate his employment or even discipline him.”

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, CA on Thursday, May 12, 2011.
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, CA on Thursday, May 12, 2011.

Dwight did not respond to an email Friday seeking her input on the conversations with Reynoso.

Lily Thompson, the school’s communications director, said school officials would not discuss their handling of student and alumni complaints about Morrone’s conduct.

“It is not appropriate for the school to provide information about conversations between our faculty and our students or alumni,” she said in an email. “As we wrote in a letter to our community this week, we are committed to listening and learning about the circumstances that allowed Morrone’s behavior to continue for as long as it did.”

Lingering unease over fired teacher

Six months after Reynoso’s February 2020 conversation with administrators, Foehl emailed Smothers asking to talk over the phone. At the beginning of August, two months after he had taken over from Durgin, Foehl had received three letters from Emma McAleavy and two classmates from 2008, Grace Erny and Linnet Vacha, raising concerns about Morrone.

Foehl in his email to Smothers, mentioned Durgin, however, and not the alumni letters, as his reason for getting in touch. The two talked, and in early September, Smothers retold what he knew to Amy Oppenheimer, an outside investigator Foehl hired to look into Morrone’s conduct.

Oppenheimer spoke with at least five graduates, including McAleavy, Vacha, Erny and Wilde. After that, the investigation wrapped up.

Foehl fired Morrone in late October. On Dec. 17, in his first public message to alumni about Morrone’s exit, Foehl not say why Morrone was gone or that he’d been fired.

“My reaction was mixed,” Smothers said. “I was mostly happy he wasn’t there anymore, but my next thought was worry that he would go do it again (somewhere else).”

One memory from Morrone’s martial arts class during Smothers’ senior year still haunts him, fueling his determination to speak out. He regrets not doing so at the time.

Morrone and a female student were sparring — Smothers said he cannot remember who the girl was — when Morrone executed a move that ended with the girl being pinned beneath him.

Another student was visiting the class with a camera, either taking photos or recording video. While Morrone held the girl pinned on her back, he made a comment, Smothers said.

“’If we don't stop now, this is going to become a different type of movie,’” Smothers recalled him saying.

The moment should have spurred him to act, he said.

“Despite my young age, despite, you know, looking back and trying to have compassion for my younger self, it is one of my great regrets that I did not speak up sooner, that I did not take action sooner,” he said. “Because people were harmed.”

Staff Writer Martin Espinoza contributed reporting. You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay.

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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