Sonoma Academy offers to pay therapy costs for sexual harassment, abuse victims
Sonoma Academy will provide graduates and students of the Santa Rosa school who have experienced sexual misconduct or abuse by any staff member with reimbursement for therapy costs, the campus announced.
The offer, capped per individual at $20,000 — and paid from the new Sonoma Academy Therapy Fund — comes after a group of seven female graduates spoke out this summer about what they described as a yearslong record of inappropriate behavior and misconduct by a longtime teacher, Marco Morrone. Morrone was quietly dismissed from Sonoma Academy in October 2020, after an 18-year tenure at the private college-prep school.
The paid therapy for affected students and graduates is the most significant step taken by the campus since it agreed earlier this summer to launch a more comprehensive, outside investigation into the extent of Morrone’s misconduct and school leaders’ handling of student and alumni complaints.
Since going public with their stories in June, the seven women also have been pushing for Sonoma Academy to publicly acknowledge their complaints that led to Morrone’s dismissal and offer some form of restitution to victims.
The new initiative including paid therapy represents “an important first step” toward realization of the latter goal, said Emma McAleavy, a 2008 graduate and one of the women involved in mediation with the school since June.
“I’m personally very happy about it,” McAleavy said. “I think the ... therapy fund will have an immediate and considerable impact on many people who were harmed while students at Sonoma Academy.”
Sonoma Academy officials, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment beyond the school’s published statement late Monday afternoon.
“The letter … sent to our community about the establishment of the Sonoma Academy Therapy Fund represents the school's complete statement on the matter,” Lily Thompson, communications director, said in an email.
Sonoma Academy is partnering with RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, to help students and alumni access mental health resources. McAleavy said she and several other members of the group engaged in the mediation, who call themselves The Athena Project, have already called the hotline.
The RAINN operator asked her a series of questions, she said: confirming her identity, what she experienced, how she and the perpetrator are affiliated with Sonoma Academy and whether or not the abuse or harassment is in the past or ongoing.
The operator also described the fund and how it works, McAleavy said.
According to Sonoma Academy’s announcement to students, alumni and parents, an “independent, third-party claims administrator” will work with RAINN to review all claims from alumni and process either approved payments to therapists or reimbursements. The school committed to providing graduates with reimbursement for therapy costs for a three-year period beginning at the program’s inception Monday, and covering up to a maximum of $20,000 per person. If necessary, an individual can petition for more money.
Both the statement from the school and a response The Athena Project published on its website stress the goal to maintain the confidentiality of all who take advantage of the Sonoma Academy Therapy Fund.
“Any alum or former student seeking support through this Fund can be assured that RAINN will maintain confidentiality and will not share their name or any other details with any Sonoma Academy administrator, board member, or other staff member,” the message from the school said.
The Athena Project pointed out in its statement that RAINN is required to make reports to Child Protective Services or local law enforcement if it receives information about abuse of minors. Some callers to the hotline, therefore, may receive a follow-up call from officials with those agencies.
But, “it’s up to the individual to decide whether or not to respond to those attempts at contact,” McAleavy said.
Sonoma Academy’s Board of Trustees also addressed in its Monday message the investigation it launched in June into Morrone’s tenure at the school. The investigation, the second involving allegations about Morrone, is being conducted by a New York-based law firm, Debevoise & Plimpton, which has extensive experience investigating sexual abuse and harassment allegations.
“The Board anticipates receiving the Debevoise report later this fall and we plan to share that information with our community then,” the message said. “In the interest of transparency, we have agreed to publicly release a full and unredacted version of the Debevoise report.”
“It’s really good they committed publicly to do that,” McAleavy said. “I think that report will make things really clear to everyone.”
Since the women of The Athena Project went public with their stories, in addition to the mediation, they’ve also fielded contacts from dozens of other alumni and students who reached out with their stories, McAleavy said.
“It’s hard to even really communicate what that’s been like,” she said. The group has walked a fine line in extending both broad support to victims while acknowledging that none of the women involved are mental health professionals.
Amid her gratitude for Sonoma Academy’s move to pay for therapy, McAleavy also sees further work ahead.
“Mental health care ... is a really important component of restorative justice because it helps people get the care that they need right now, but it doesn’t make people whole for what happened to them in the past,” she said. “That’s why Sonoma Academy needs to pay restitution to anyone who suffered sexual harassment or sexual abuse while they were a student.”
You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @ka_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.