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PD Editorial: Sonoma Academy owes a full and public accounting

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

When parents send their children to school, they trust that their sons and daughters will be safe. Indeed, teachers, counselors and other adults have no greater responsibility — and the vast majority of them take their duty very seriously.

When students are harmed, or exposed to harm, school officials must act without delay.

That might mean a crackdown on bullying or hazing or, in the aftermath of violence, updating security measures.

Swift intervention is essential whenever a student reports sexual misconduct.

Former students at Sonoma Academy say their complaints about sexual harassment, physical abuse and other unprofessional conduct by a teacher at the elite private school in southeast Santa Rosa went unheeded for more than a decade.

Seven women accuse Marco Morrone, an English and history teacher at Sonoma Academy for 18 years, of unnecessary touching in the classroom, soliciting one-on-one meetings off campus, exposing them to sexually explicit literature and prying into their intimate feelings. Several male classmates have stepped forward to say they witnessed behavior by Morrone with young women they considered inappropriate, and two men said he was overly aggressive with them during after-school martial arts lessons.

Morrone, 50, was fired in October, but school officials didn’t disclose the reason for his dismissal until Staff Writers Kaylee Tornay and Martin Espinoza were about to break the story seven months later. On June 9, the school issued a written statement saying Morrone “engaged in conduct that violated appropriate boundaries with students.” Morrone hasn’t commented on the allegations.

The women, who are in mediation with Sonoma Academy, say the school must do more to fulfill its goal of “restorative justice.” They asked for an investigation of “the full extent” of “grooming, harassment, and abuse of students” and “the extent to which staff and faculty members failed to respond appropriately.”

They also asked for “an equitable, transparent, and mutually agreeable process” to “identify all victims who wish to be known” and “restitution to every person who was harmed by Marco’s behavior and the school’s negligence.”

Over the weekend, Sonoma Academy announced an independent investigation by Debvoise and Plimpton, a New York-based law firm with experience handling sexual misconduct cases involving private schools.

“We find ourselves at the outset of a critical moment for defining the future of Sonoma Academy, one we are confident will make us more accountable for the school’s actions and ultimately much stronger as a school moving forward,” Tucker Foehl, the head of school, and Tory Nosler, the board chair, said in a written statement.

An outside investigation is the correct response. There are, after all, plenty of other public and private high schools in the North Bay if families lose confidence in Sonoma Academy, which until now was probably best known for placing graduates at top colleges and universities.

A private institution in a similar spot might choose to circle the wagons and wait for the crisis to pass. However, in announcing the outside investigation, Foehl and Nosler said “our entire community” needs to understand what happened at the school and why it took so long to address students’ allegations against Morrone.

To that end, and especially for the benefit of present and future students and their families, we hope Sonoma Academy releases the results of its investigation and details the steps it takes to ensure safety and respect for students and accountability for teachers and other staff members.

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Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

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