Sonoma Academy will pursue wider misconduct investigation sought by alumni in wake of teacher’s firing
Sonoma Academy officials announced Saturday the school will launch a comprehensive investigation into a longtime former teacher’s misconduct, focusing partly on why he was allowed to remain on the job after being disciplined for inappropriate behavior and amid numerous complaints by students and alumni from 2007 to 2020.
The new investigation, announced by Head of School Tucker Foehl and board of trustees Chair Tory Nosler, comes in the wake of personal accounts shared publicly by seven female graduates who have sought to raise a louder alarm about humanities teacher Marco Morrone, who was fired in 2020 after an initial investigation by the school.
The seven women, all now in their mid-20s and early 30s, have detailed in at least two dozen interviews with The Press Democrat since early May and in 10 stories published since June 9 a pattern of sexual harassment by Morrone many of them feel amounted to manipulative grooming.
They have called on Sonoma Academy to conduct a wider and deeper investigation that would hold those in positions of power accountable for the harm they say was done to them as Morrone’s students at the prestigious, private Santa Rosa school.
Foehl and Nosler on Saturday said school officials agreed to that step.
A stronger examination was needed, they said, into lapses that “permitted Marco Morrone to continue his 18-year employment at Sonoma Academy in spite of serious breaches of trust and misconduct.”
“Our entire community deserves to understand the full extent and breadth of Marco Morrone’s inappropriate behavior and misconduct as well as the circumstances that allowed his actions and detrimental impact to continue for as long as it did,” Foehl and Nosler said in the email. “It is clear to us, thanks to the bravery of our alumni who initially came forward and the alumni who have recently been empowered to reveal the harm done to them, that a broad investigation is critical.”
Linnet Vacha, one of the graduates who stepped forward with her account of misconduct by Morrone, called the school’s move “a great step in the right direction.”
“We’re still waiting to hear more details about whether they’re planning to release a report publicly, what they’re planning to look into,” said Vacha, who graduated in 2008.
New York-based law firm Debevoise and Plimpton will conduct the new investigation, led by chief investigator Mary Beth Hogan, according to the school. The firm has extensive experience in school-based cases, and was hired in April by the Union for Reform Judaism to look into sexual misconduct claims.
Previously, it has investigated allegations at private schools in Portsmouth, Rhode Island and a chain of New York City-based charter schools.
The investigation is the second into Morrone’s behavior in two years. He was fired in October after a probe launched by Foehl last summer. Investigators determined he engaged in conduct with female students that repeatedly “crossed appropriate professional boundaries,” according to the school.
The new investigation will be broader in scope and address, “among other things, whether current or former Sonoma Academy employees or trustees had knowledge of any inappropriate behavior or sexual misconduct toward Sonoma Academy students by Morrone” — and if so examine what actions, if any, school officials took to address it, Foehl and Nosler said in their Saturday message.
Investigators also will focus on any similar allegations of misconduct by other staff or campus volunteers, as well as school officials’ handling of reports by students and alumni over the years, Foehl and Nosler said.
At Sonoma Academy, an oversight committee established by the Board of Trustees will guide the investigation. No additional details were included on the scope of that committee’s role.
“(Hogan’s) charge is to be comprehensive and impartial, without influence or interference from the Oversight Committee, the Board of Trustees, or Sonoma Academy faculty, staff, or administration,” Foehl and Nosler said. “We also consulted with the women participating in the restorative justice process, and they fully endorse the Board's decision to retain Debevoise and Mary Beth Hogan.”
“Based on our initial due diligence, she looks like a really strong choice,” Vacha said. “It’s great that she doesn’t have prior connections at the school.”
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.