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PD Editorial: Teaching a lesson in standing up to sexual harassment

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.

Pinching and other uninvited physical contact. Unwelcome questions about relationships and sex. Pinning someone to the floor. In the workplace, any one of these actions would be wrong, and potentially unlawful.

Sexual harassment is wrong in the classroom, too — especially when it’s a teacher exploiting students.

Surveys and academic research show that sexual harassment is disturbingly common in schools. Harassment comes in many forms — lewd comments and gestures, exposure to pornographic images, unwelcome touching and, in extreme cases, sexual abuse. It interferes with a student’s opportunity to study, and victims can suffer long-term impacts. Too frequently it goes unreported or, even worse, it gets ignored.

Sonoma Academy finds itself under the spotlight after seven women, all graduates of the prestigious private school, said they were harassed by Marco Morrone, a teacher who remained on the faculty for 13 years after the first known complaint about his behavior with teenage girls.

Morrone, 50, was fired in October, but school officials didn’t disclose the reason for his dismissal until last week when The Press Democrat was about to break the story.

The seven women, now in their 20s and 30s, are seeking a full accounting of what Emma McAleavy, who reported Morrone in 2007, described as “an incredibly painful open secret in our community for over a decade.”

The women told Staff Writers Kaylee Tornay and Martin Espinoza that as teenagers in Morrone’s English class they were encouraged to share intimate secrets and asked to read aloud from sexually explicit literature. They say he solicited one-on-one off-campus meetings and, during a martial arts class, pinned one of them on the floor in a compromising position. Over several years, they said, young women who gained Morrone’s attention and favor came to be known as “Marco’s Girls.”

Morrone hasn’t commented on the allegations. But after an investigation last year, school officials concluded that he “engaged in conduct that violated appropriate boundaries with students” for several years after an initial complaint in 2007 was handled with “discipline and counseling.”

Although there aren’t any allegations of sexual abuse, psychologists and therapists called the behavior described by the women “grooming” and said it can be harmful to victims.

At a public or private school that receives federal money, several of the allegations could be violations of Title IX, a civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination on campus. They also appear to violate the code of conduct posted on Sonoma Academy’s website, which prohibits sexually related conversations and electronic communications, and excessive attention or favoritism toward students.

It took courage for these women to speak out — and it took perseverance. Several women said they raised concerns over the years and were rebuffed by Sonoma Academy staff members. Three women renewed their complaints when a new head of school was appointed last year, and Morrone was fired two months later.

School officials introduced an online platform for complaints and entered private mediation with the women who reported Morrone. The women want a more complete accounting. They created a website — theathenaproject.co — to connect with victims and offer resources.

We hope other victims — at any school — will feel empowered to step forward. In schools, as in workplaces, there must be zero tolerance for sexual harassment. Failure to take it seriously encourages perpetrators and deters victims from reporting what has happened.

You can send letters to the editor to letters@pressdemocrat.com.

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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