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What will new investigation of Sonoma Academy teacher misconduct entail? Past cases provide clues

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If you want to share your story

Press Democrat reporters Kaylee Tornay and Martin Espinoza are continuing to cover alumni allegations of sexual harassment by a longtime former Sonoma Academy teacher 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

Sonoma Academy coverage

To read more stories and see the PD’s complete coverage, visit:

pressdemocrat.com/SonomaAcademy

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.

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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.

The lead lawyer on the Sonoma Academy investigation is Mary Beth Hogan, accompanied by partner Helen Cantwell, according to Sonoma Academy.

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.”

New investigators

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.

How to reach our reporters

If you want to share your story

Press Democrat reporters Kaylee Tornay and Martin Espinoza are continuing to cover alumni allegations of sexual harassment by a longtime former Sonoma Academy teacher 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

Sonoma Academy coverage

To read more stories and see the PD’s complete coverage, visit:

pressdemocrat.com/SonomaAcademy

In 2017, the firm investigated allegations of sexual abuse spanning decades by faculty at Portsmouth Abbey, a private boarding and day school in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. The resulting 15-page report released by the school detailed all of the incidents the lawyers uncovered. Victims names were withheld, but school staff accused of misconduct or who received reports were named.

Portsmouth Abbey leaders also included a public apology and a commitment to “helping past victims, providing therapy for them as needed.”

In 2018, the Washington National Cathedral, part of the Episcopalian Diocese of Washington, D.C. hired Debevoise and Plimpton to look into allegations of sexual abuse across several decades at several institutions: the Beauvoir School, an elementary school; St. Albans School, an elite all-boys high school; and the National Cathedral School, an all-girls school. Diocesan leadership chose to release in June 2019 a summary of the findings rather than a full report.

Debevoise and Plimpton investigators interviewed more than 200 people and reviewed more than 40,000 documents in the course of that combined case, according to the summary. The firm also made recommendations based on what it learned, with a goal of strengthening safety protocols.

The schools committed to the creation of a new committee on student safety, including an outside expert. They also offered survivors access to therapy with school counselors or with counselors at the Gil Institute for Trauma Recovery and Education in Fairfax, Virginia, which specializes in working with sexual abuse survivors.

The Press Democrat contacted the heads of the Laurel School, Portsmouth Abbey and St. Albans School to inquire about their experience working with Debevoise and Plimpton attorneys on those high-profile cases. None of the administrators responded.

Attempts to reach Hogan by phone and email were unsuccessful. An automated email response said she would be unavailable for an unspecified amount of time.

Other members of Hogan’s team on the Sonoma Academy investigation did not respond to messages passed through an office assistant requesting an interview.

School officials won’t talk

Sonoma Academy officials also declined to be interviewed for this story.

“The letter that Tucker and Board Chair Tory Nosler sent last week … represents the school's complete statement on the matter,” Lily Thompson, communications director for Sonoma Academy, wrote in an email. “We have a duty to protect the privacy and confidentiality of our community members, as well as to allow room for Debevoise and Plimpton to conduct its important work.”

Sonoma Academy leaders have refused to answer Press Democrat questions since the scandal broke three weeks ago. Foehl issued a public acknowledgment on June 9 about Morrone’s firing and the 2020 investigation hours after Press Democrat reporters visited Morrone’s house seeking his comment about accounts shared by graduates in dozens of interviews with the newspaper since early May.

In the past week, school leaders declined to answer questions about the forthcoming investigation. The Press Democrat asked:

*How long the investigation was expected to last

*Whether the school is offering support to students or alumni who speak with investigators

*The role of a new oversight committee at Sonoma Academy, which the school’s June 19 announcement said will “guide this important work.”

*Whether it will make public the final investigative report from Debevoise and Plimpton

Several of the women who have stepped forward to demand greater accountability from the school have said they regard the new investigation as an encouraging first step.

Sonoma Academy will have failed, however, if it does not publish the full report at the end of the investigation, the women said.

One graduate cited the Thacher School, the elite Ojai campus which recently saw its reckoning with long-standing allegations of sexual assault and abuse spill into the public light. The school this month released a full a 90-page report detailing sexual misconduct by faculty, staff and students over decades.

“It is only meaningful if the entire report is made publicly available,” said 2008 graduate Grace Erny.

“Trust has been so completely damaged that complete transparency is the only way forward for Sonoma Academy,” she said.

Wide field of specialized investigators

Sonoma Academy selected Hogan and her team out of the field of firms that specialize in sexual abuse investigations involving educational and religious institutions.

It is a growing sector, fueled by the mounting numbers of school and faith organizations forced over the past two decades to come to terms with rampant staff and clerical misconduct, ranging from rape and molestation to groping and sexual grooming.

New York City-based T&M Protection Resources, a security and investigations firm, has handled many of those cases. It was brought in by private schools for investigations in 2019 and 2020 in Asheville, North Carolina, Brooklyn, and Baltimore, to name a few examples documented in local news stories.

Its investigative teams are led by former sex crimes prosecutors, according to the firm’s website.

Cozen O’Connor, based in Philadelphia, is another firm with an array of high profile cases in the same field.

In 2017, when the New York Times chronicled the business boom for firms handling school sex abuse cases, Cozen O’Connor had worked with more than 400 schools, camps and higher education institutions on investigations, including policy development and legal advice.

Many of Debevoise and Plimpton’s school clients have been based in New York. It produced investigations for Rockefeller University and Ramaz School in New York City, both in 2019, as well as KIPP NYC, a network of public charter schools.

Schools, investigators look to students

Graduates of schools at the center of those scandals have at times voiced unease about the relationship between campuses and their contracted investigators.

The institutions under investigation are paying the bill, after all. How freely do those investigators operate? And who decides where to draw the line on the investigators’ reach?

“There’s a lot of questioning of what really is going to come out of this,” said Clio Wilde, a 2011 Sonoma Academy graduate. “The first investigation was touted as thorough and it was very, very far from thorough. We’re hopeful this will be different.”

In the June 19 message, Foehl and Nosler said Hogan and her team'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.”

The reports and summaries schools have published show investigators in such cases often follow a similar pattern, starting with interviews of current and former students, staff and faculty. If applicable, they examine evidence such as yearbooks, policies and letters and emails sent to school staff about abuse students witnessed or experienced.

The lawyers are limited in their ability to compel anyone to speak, however. They lack subpoena power and sometimes rely on people reaching out to them, especially if the school can’t provide updated contact information for a graduate.

Survivors and perpetrators can be left out of final reports due to those shortcomings.

Sonoma Academy in Santa Rosa, Sunday, June 20, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
Sonoma Academy in Santa Rosa, Sunday, June 20, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

Foehl and Nosler told the Sonoma Academy community the investigation “depends on the willingness of individuals who have experienced misconduct to come forward to share their stories.”

The campus said anyone who is ready to talk should contact Debevoise and Plimpton by email at SAInvestigation@debevoise.com.

“We encourage you to communicate with the investigators any information about Morrone’s misconduct (or that of any other present or past Sonoma Academy employee or volunteer), including your experience in reporting this misconduct to school officials,” the message read.

'People need help right now’

Other Sonoma Academy graduates and students have begun to come forward since the first seven women shared their stories publicly. Many of them, for now, are choosing to speak first with fellow graduates.

Their primary forum is The Athena Project, an effort launched by the lead group of seven female graduates. Through email and Instagram, more alumni are speaking up with stories of their own, according to the women.

Project leaders have heard from students from every graduating class, back to Sonoma Academy’s first in 2004, said Vacha and Wilde.

Clio Wilde, at her apartment in Los Angeles, Wednesday, June 9, 2021. She is one of seven women who graduated from Sonoma Academy and have come forward with allegations of inappropriate, sexually charged behavior by longtime teacher Marco Morrone, who was eventually fired last year.  (Kelvin Kuo for The Press Democrat)
Clio Wilde, at her apartment in Los Angeles, Wednesday, June 9, 2021. She is one of seven women who graduated from Sonoma Academy and have come forward with allegations of inappropriate, sexually charged behavior by longtime teacher Marco Morrone, who was eventually fired last year. (Kelvin Kuo for The Press Democrat)

“It has become a responsibility of mine to show up for people in a time of complete crisis,” Wilde said. “When they’re reliving deeply internalized complex trauma and trying to understand what their responsibility is and what they feel they need to do about it.”

The seven women are together involved in confidential mediation talks with the school, geared partly to achieve restitution and therapy for affected students and graduates.

“People need help right now,” Wilde said. “One thing we’ve heard from so any people is that they felt isolated in their own experience and have shouldered the weight of this alone for more than a decade, for some people.”

“The time has come,” she said. “It’s well overdue for support to be provided.”

The investigation, on the other hand, could spur the kind of public dialogue the women have sought for years about reforms and accountability at Sonoma Academy.

At this point, some of their fellow graduates are not so hopeful their stories will make a difference, Wilde said.

“(That’s) why I think a lot of people have chosen to speak directly to us first,” she said.

“There is that very basic fundamental understanding of, me too. I understand what happened because a similar thing happened to me.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to correctly identify the Washington National Cathedral as having hired Debevoise and Plimpton in 2018 to investigate sexual abuse allegations at four of its schools.

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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