The women, who graduated within the past dozen years or so, say Marco Morrone, a humanities teacher at Sonoma Academy for 18 years, took advantage of his position as a trusted mentor and instructor and repeatedly crossed emotional and physical boundaries with them.
They accuse him of harassment and repeated requests to share and discuss with him their most personal feelings, often in journal-like assignments that were seen by no one else.
Morrone, 50, who was dismissed from the Santa Rosa school in October, has not been accused of sexual assault, and the women say they have not made reports to law enforcement, nor has the school. No civil lawsuits have been filed against him or Sonoma Academy related to his behavior.
But the seven women, who attended the school at different points from 2004 through 2014, have told The Press Democrat over the past six weeks that Morrone exploited the feelings that many of them, as impressionable 16- and 17-year-olds, had for him as an instructor and mentor.
Now in their 20s and early 30s, the women are pressing their case for a public reckoning about Morrone’s tenure in mediation talks with Sonoma Academy officials eight months after his departure from the school.
“Marco is not the only man to sexually harass us; he’s just the first one,” Emma McAleavy, a 2008 graduate, said in an interview last month. “And he initiated us into a tradition that is completely disgusting and insidious. And for that to happen with him at school is just unconscionable.”
Sonoma Academy leaders agree with the women that Morrone’s actions were wrong.
In an extraordinary and lengthy statement sent to parents, staff and alumni Wednesday afternoon, Tucker Foehl, the head of school, said its investigation last year of Morrone — prompted by the complaints of three of the women — confirmed the women’s allegations.
Foehl said Morrone was fired for “(engaging) in conduct that violated appropriate boundaries with students who were members of the classes of 2008 through 2014.”
“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.
Sonoma Academy, founded in 2001, serves about 330 students at its state-of-the art campus at the base of Taylor Mountain. Annual tuition is about $47,000.
Some of the seven women who have shared their accounts with The Press Democrat voiced mixed feelings about Foehl’s statement. It was a welcome step, several said; others said it minimized what they had experienced.
Clio Wilde, a 2011 graduate, said Foehl’s assertion that Morrone never engaged in sexual abuse of students felt like “a punch in the gut.”
She said she forwarded Foehl’s message to the other women and left work in Los Angeles on Wednesday to collect herself.
“It really felt to me like they clearly feel like they’ve done their job,” Wilde said. “(But) I know from my reaction and the reaction from the other women that it does not feel considerate of our experiences or what we have been asking of them. It really feels re-traumatizing to have this happen again.”
The school’s statement came six hours after two Press Democrat reporters knocked on Morrone’s door at his Petaluma home and left a two-page letter detailing the women’s accusations and asking for his response.
Reached by phone Tuesday afternoon, he promptly hung up on The Press Democrat and has not answered multiple follow-up calls, including a detailed voice message about the allegations.
The women were part of a small clique of students known across multiple classes over many years by the same name: “Marco’s Girls.” They contend his relationships with them were inappropriate.
Several alumni had raised their concerns about Morrone with school leaders years before, and at least one did so as far back as 2007 when she was a student. Their experience affected relationships with other teachers and mentors, and its imprint left them dealing with emotional trauma that lasted years after their graduation.
McAleavy, who made the earliest report known to The Press Democrat in 2007, during her senior year, said the school’s statement failed to tell the whole story.
The statement, she said, disclosed much of what she and her fellow alumnae have told school officials in statements and complaints. But it did not detail the months of meetings and mediation that the women have engaged in with the school — nor the years of waiting for responses to reports made over 14 years.
“They have a lot to account for, a lot to make up for,” she said. “And they’re going to get the opportunity to do that in the immediate future. I’m looking forward to seeing how they handle that process.”
“What I will say is I’m extraordinarily relieved that Sonoma Academy has shared more than they ever have before with the community about what’s been going on and that the extended Sonoma Academy community has an opportunity to deal with what has been an incredibly painful open secret in our community for over a decade,” she added.
Foehl could not be reached Wednesday evening to answer questions about his statement and detailed allegations shared by the women with The Press Democrat.
The women approached the newspaper in early May with their stories after pressing for eight months for school leadership to make a full, public accounting of student and alumni complaints about Morrone.
Until Wednesday, no word about the investigation’s findings, its scope, or its bearing on Morrone’s future employment had reached the school community or the wider public — a shortcoming, the women said, that has prompted them to come forward. They are concerned his employment at another school could put other girls at risk, and that school administrators at the time have yet to be held accountable.
“For me, one thing that’s really important about transparency is just that Marco can’t pull this at another school,” said Grace Erny, another 2008 alumna. “If, say, that he did harm other kids, I would feel this incredible burden. Like I knew something and I didn’t stop whatever was going to happen.”
In a series of lengthy interviews with The Press Democrat over several weeks, the seven women shared stories that were detailed, corroborated in some cases by friends and family, or recorded in journals they kept at the time.
The allegations include claims that Morrone:
* Used physical touch, including lingering contact and brushing up against girls in a way that left them feeling uncomfortable and vulnerable — though none accuse him of touching their genitals or other private areas.
* Conducted private martial arts classes, including one-on-one sessions with one girl, which included him restraining students in uncomfortable, compromising positions.
* Encouraged female students to share intimate secrets during free-form writing assignments, often rewarding their revelations with what the women felt were flirtatious comments.
* Routinely exposed students inside and outside of class curriculum to sexually explicit literature, passing out copies of Vladimir Nabokov’s acclaimed, salacious novel “Lolita” and asking students to read aloud in class from a gratuitous masturbation scene in Philip Roth’s novel “Portnoy’s Complaint.”
The allegations against Morrone raise significant questions about a man who by many accounts was a highly respected and beloved educator at Sonoma Academy. He joined the Santa Rosa school only a year after its 2001 founding and taught one of its core classes, the double Advanced Placement English and Humanities class critical for the college hopes of many of the school’s students.
Morrone’s tenure at Sonoma Academy endured despite multiple reports that students and alumni said they made to various school staff, expressing their concerns about his behavior.
Alumni said Janet Durgin, the founding head of school at Sonoma Academy from its 2001 opening until her June 2020 retirement, failed repeatedly to take significant action in the face of those reports. She did not, to the women’s knowledge, launch any outside review or pass their concerns to law enforcement or child protective authorities to trigger an independent investigation.
Two voicemails left with Durgin late Wednesday afternoon went unreturned.
Tory Nosler, chair of the school’s board of trustees, could not be reached before 7 p.m. Wednesday.
Male and female alumni said they reported many of Morrone’s actions to school officials multiple times over several years, but officials did not see fit to remove him from Sonoma Academy.
The school’s statement Wednesday was its first public acknowledgment that school officials determined Morrone behaved inappropriately around students as long as 14 years ago.
“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,” Foehl said in the statement.
He said the school had since taken steps to bolster its safety efforts for students and its engagement measures for parents, students, faculty and staff, and alumni. It introduced a confidential reporting tool through LiveSafe for any type of report of campus misconduct involving personnel.
Still, Linnet Vacha, a 2008 graduate, said the school made no mention of financial restitution for those harmed by Morrone and gave no outline for what it would do if additional women came forward.
“That doesn’t look like accountability to me,” she said. “This was not one man acting in secrecy. His behavior was allowed because everyone stood by.”
The seven women Wednesday called on the school to pursue a wider investigation to give all affected alumni a chance to come forward. Restitution should also be offered to any potential victims, they said. Through a mediation process called “restorative justice,” they are trying to come to an agreement without resorting to litigation.
“This is a big day for us in a lot of ways,” McAleavy said. “But if you’re asking, do I think that this is a commendable action on the part of the school? Absolutely not.”
You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or email@example.com. You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more photos and interactive content, read this story on the Press Democrat website