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Sonoma Academy will pursue wider misconduct investigation sought by alumni in wake of teacher’s firing

A stronger examination is needed, school leaders 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.”|

Sonoma Academy coverage

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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.

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

Hogan’s investigation will seek to further illuminate the context of Morrone’s durable tenure at the school, as alumni from several graduating classes have told school leaders and The Press Democrat they reported Morrone’s behavior to top officials numerous times in years past.

The move by Sonoma Academy comes amid mediation talks with the seven women who banded together over their shared experiences starting last year and have since given their effort a name: The Athena Project.

A wider investigation was one of their major goals. They 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.

“I want to make sure if I encourage these people to talk to this investigator that they will be taken care of. That their needs will be met around the harm that was caused to them,” said Clio Wilde, a 2011 graduate and member of The Athena Project.

“That has to be a part of the conversation,” she said.

The confidential mediation talks, which began June 11, represent only the latest step in yearslong bid by several of the women to call out Morrone’s conduct and hold the school publicly accountable for failing to safeguard students.

After Morrone was disciplined in connection with a 2007 misconduct complaint by a student, his inappropriate behavior continued, Foehl acknowledged in an extraordinary June 9 statement.

“The investigator found no evidence that Morrone had sexual relationships with students or engaged in sexual abuse of students,” Foehl said. “The investigator did find that despite receiving discipline and counseling in 2007 for his comments and actions toward a student, Morrone continued to develop relationships with certain female students that crossed appropriate professional boundaries.”

The school has not received any reports of Morrone engaging in sexually inappropriate conduct more recently than 2014, according to Foehl, who took over as head of school in mid-2020. After his firing, Morrone was banned from school grounds.

Four Sonoma Academy graduates have told The Press Democrat about the reports they made to school staff, including former Head of School Janet Durgin, about Morrone’s improper behavior toward female students.

Emma McAleavy, a 2008 graduate, made four reports. The first was during her senior year in 2007, the second was made directly to Durgin in 2016 and another went to an administrator in 2018. In 2020, she sent a statement to Foehl when he took over as the top administrator.

“I feel that I very strongly warned various members of the Sonoma Academy administrative team about the likelihood that Marco had already and would continue to harm female students in particular,” McAleavy said.

It wasn’t until June 9 when Foehl acknowledged to the broader school community that Morrone’s October departure from Sonoma Academy was driven by an investigation into his conduct launched after three alumni alerted him to their concerns in August 2020.

McAleavy was one of those three women. She, Vacha and Grace Erny sent letters to Foehl a month after his June arrival at the school, when he took over for Durgin upon her retirement.

The female graduates said Morrone repeatedly crossed emotional and physical boundaries with them, including encouraging them to share intimate secrets in free-form writing assignments, soliciting one-on-one meetings with them on and off campus, and touching them unnecessarily while working with them on their assignments.

Saturday’s school announcement represents momentum on a long, emotionally painful path for the women, Vacha said.

“I’d love for Sonoma Academy to be a model for how to handle this correctly,” she said. “Not just to keep up with expectations, but really set the standard of how to handle this.”

“This is really the first time I see the possibility of that happening.”

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.

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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