What will new investigation of Sonoma Academy teacher misconduct entail? Past cases provide clues
A report by New York-based law firm Debevoise and Plimpton made public Monday, Nov. 29, 2021, found that former Sonoma Academy teacher Marco Morrone acted inappropriately with at least 34 students over his 18-year tenure.
This story, originally published June 26, 2021, tells of the law firm, its experience handling a number of similar cases and about the lead investigator in the probe.
Less than a year ago, Sonoma Academy brought on an outside investigator look into reports raised by three graduates who accused a longtime teacher of a pattern of sexually charged, inappropriate behavior.
The findings from that investigation, conducted quietly by the school and its hired experts over several months, led to humanities teacher Marco Morrone’s firing in October.
But the school’s public acknowledgment of that dismissal, and the student and alumni record of complaints about Morrone stretching back to at least 2007, failed to quiet the call by a group of graduates for a more comprehensive investigation of the teacher’s misconduct and the school’s handling of it.
Now, in the wake of public revelations from seven female Sonoma Academy graduates about the harassment they say they endured or witnessed while students of Morrone’s up to 14 years ago, the school on June 19 announced the launch of a new investigation.
It will be both wider in scope and stronger in its examination of how Morrone was allowed to stay on at the elite, private college prep high school in Santa Rosa even as more complaints came in years after he’d been disciplined for inappropriate behavior toward a student.
And investigators will not focus solely on Morrone, Head of School Tucker Foehl said in public message to the school community a week ago.
Debevoise and Plimpton, the New York City-based firm hired by Sonoma Academy, is tasked with looking into “any matters concerning inappropriate behavior or sexual misconduct toward Sonoma Academy students at any time by Morrone or by other current or former Sonoma Academy employees or volunteers,” Foehl and Tory Nosler, chair of the Board of Trustees, wrote in a joint statement.
Debevoise and Plimpton has handled a number of similar cases, and is one in an extensive network of law firms hired by private schools across the nation in recent decades to dig into allegations of improper staff conduct and mishandling of reports by school leaders.
Morrone, 50, has declined multiple requests for an interview and has not responded to written questions from The Press Democrat over the past three weeks.
The seven graduates who have shared their accounts with The Press Democrat and pushed for greater accountability from Sonoma Academy say they are hopeful the school will uncover more this time.
“What I would hope is that this is the beginning of Sonoma Academy really setting the bar,” said Linnet Vacha, a 2008 graduate. “Not just to keep up with expectations, but really set the standard of how to handle this well.”
A graduate of Princeton University and Rutgers School of Law, Hogan has won acclaim in her field as a trailblazing attorney, author and public speaker. She clerked for a judge on the New Jersey Supreme Court in 1990 and 1991. She joined Debevoise and Plimpton immediately after that, working her way up from an associate to partner in 1999, according to her LinkedIn page.
An experienced litigator with expertise in employment law, whistleblower cases and sexual harassment and discrimination, Hogan became co-chair of the litigation department at Debevoise and Plimpton in 2014. She works out of the Manhattan office, according to the firm’s website.
Debevoise and Plimpton investigators have extensive experience in cases involving allegations of sexual abuse and improper conduct at educational institutions, corporations and other organizations, according to its website.
Several of those cases highlight the variety of outcomes for school investigations, especially when it comes to transparency with the campus community and wider public, and follow-up with victims.
In 2015, Debevoise and Plimpton looked into employee misconduct at the Laurel School, a private, all-girls K-12 campus in Shaker Heights, Ohio. A student there had told the head of school that a teacher sexually assaulted her. A subsequent criminal case against that employee was later thrown out over evidence withheld by a detective.
The Press Democrat was unable to find evidence the Laurel School publicized the findings of Debevoise and Plimpton’s investigation.