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Sonoma Academy rocked by sexual harassment and misconduct scandal

Sonoma Academy in Santa Rosa, Calif.
(Sonoma Academy)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Tuesday, Dec. 7. I’m Justin Ray.

As a warning, I will be discussing sexual assault in this newsletter.

Last week, a prestigious private school in the Bay Area released a report detailing allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct that took place over 15 years.

The 49-page report explains how a former teacher at Sonoma Academy in Santa Rosa allegedly groomed, sexually harassed or otherwise acted in an inappropriate way with at least 34 female students. The report also claims that two other former employees sexually abused at least three students.

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The school is a co-ed private college preparatory high school. Tuition and fees cost $49,600, SF GATE reported. The school hired New York-based law firm Debevoise & Plimpton to conduct a full investigation after a report about sexual allegations was published by the Santa Rosa Press Democrat in June (the paper has been doing a phenomenal job covering the story).

“We are heartbroken by the events detailed within this report, not just the serious misconduct by three former employees but also the failure of school leaders to act when they learned that students under their care were being subjected to abuse. It is with heartfelt humility that we apologize for what our alumni endured as a result of their painful experiences,” the school said in a statement.

Here are the major things to know about the report, and what has happened since it was published.

The allegations

The teacher at the center of the report taught humanities courses at Sonoma Academy from 2002 to 2020 before he was fired. The report and the school have identified the teacher as Marco Morrone, who has denied the allegations.

The investigation found that he violated the school’s code of conduct in multiple ways including: “Having sexually oriented materials and sexually related conversations in the presence of students, having secrets of a personal nature with students, [and] discussing an individual student’s physique.”

The report also found that he had electronic communications with students “of a personal nature,” did not keep blinds and doors open during one-on-one meetings with students, and engaged in the “touching of knees or legs.” Many witnesses also reported seeing him touching female students in intimate ways, such as on the back or the leg. While investigators did not find evidence that he had sexual relations with individuals while they were students, one former student said he groomed her and the pair had sexual relations after she graduated.

According to the report, the accused teacher “refused to speak” with Debevoise for the investigation, but was interviewed for a previous 2020 investigation. At that time, he “denied making any physical contact with students outside of pinching one student and hugging students in public celebratory situations, such as after they gave their senior speeches,” the new report said. He “stated that, while he had close relationships with many students, they were appropriate and he maintained boundaries.”

The teacher did not send a comment to the Press Democrat in response to the allegations made in the paper’s original report.

Investigators found that members of the Sonoma Academy administration took inadequate steps to monitor and investigate the teacher’s behavior.

“Those failures led to a culture where students believed [his] behavior was sanctioned,” the report states. Additionally, administrators “showed a pattern of dismissing students’ concerns, at least in some circumstances implicitly blaming them for the uncomfortable interactions they reported, and often accepting [the teacher’s] version of events without any challenge.”

The reaction

Assistant Head of School Ellie Dwight resigned a day after the report was released. “Young people — and our school — have been hurt on my watch and that cannot be excused. Sorry is not strong enough,” Dwight said in a note to her colleagues.

The Santa Rosa Police Department confirmed to the Press Democrat that it is investigating several reports of suspected child sex abuse “associated with staff at Sonoma Academy.” A graduate is also suing the school.

The Athena Project, a group of past Sonoma Academy students who formed to hold the institution accountable in the wake of the scandal, released a statement: “We are devastated by the extent of the harm done to Sonoma Academy students over the years. Our deepest empathy goes out to those who were sexually harassed, abused, or otherwise harmed while they were students at Sonoma Academy.”

“Sonoma Academy has worked to improve its policies, procedures, and training in the two years before this investigation was launched, and there are still additional and important improvements that need to be made,” the school said in a statement. “We have worked to provide alumni who were impacted by the misconduct of school personnel with resources to help them on the path toward healing, and we will continue to do so. To that end, we partnered with RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, to assist alumni and former students with costs related to therapy.”

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

Note: Some of the sites we link to may limit the number of stories you can access without subscribing.

Small businesses eat the cost of inflation. Skyrocketing inflation is slamming many of California’s 1.6 million small businesses, which employ more than half the state’s workforce. Supply chain snafus make it harder and costlier to restock inventory. “I don’t want to chase away customers,” Vivian Bowers, the owner of Bowers & Sons Cleaners, told The Times. “If they have to choose between getting a blazer cleaned or putting gas in their car, which one are they going to do?” Los Angeles Times

Vivian Bowers, the owner of Bowers & Sons Cleaners
Vivian Bowers, the owner of Bowers & Sons Cleaners, a second-generation dry-cleaning business on Central Avenue in South Los Angeles.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

L.A. STORIES

Grab your coat! A pair of storms are expected to deliver an early dose of winter in the form of rain, snow and cooler temperatures in Southern California this week, officials said. The first, weaker system will bring the potential for light rain to Los Angeles on Tuesday morning, according to the National Weather Service. A stronger system will bring a better chance of rain and mountain snow Thursday. The back-to-back storms, which are moving from the Gulf of Alaska, will also deliver a cooler air mass that is likely to linger into the weekend. Los Angeles Times

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POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

Rep. Devin Nunes, a controversial San Joaquin Valley Republican, is leaving Congress to lead a social media company created by former President Trump. “I will deeply miss being your congressman,” Nunes said in a message to his constituents. The former dairy farmer’s retirement comes in the midst of the every-decade redrawing of congressional districts and as California loses a member of Congress for the first time in its history. Under draft maps released this year, Nunes would have faced a tough reelection contest in the 2022 midterms. Los Angeles Times

Democrats are proposing a potentially seismic shift in how the nation battles wildfires by dramatically increasing funding for efforts that aim to prevent blazes, rather than focusing on the tools to put them out. Under the social safety net and climate bill passed by the House and now being negotiated in the Senate, Democrats would funnel $27 billion into the nation’s forests, including a sizable $14 billion over a decade for clearing vegetation and other dry debris that can fuel a fire. Known as “hazardous fuels reduction,” such proactive measures have been “underfunded for so long,” said Ann M. Bartuska, a senior advisor at environmental nonprofit Resources for the Future and a former Forest Service official. “This really cries out and says, ‘All right, we get it, we need to reduce wildfire risk.’” Los Angeles Times

CRIME AND COURTS

Two armed robbers broke into a Pacific Palisades home during an outdoor holiday party being held at the residence and stripped guests of jewelry, phones and a watch. The owner of the home, who asked to not be named, said two partygoers came inside the house to retrieve their purses and were confronted by two men with guns. The men took jewelry, iPhones and an Apple watch from the guests, the owner said. An LAPD public information officer said that the suspects fled the scene by the time police arrived. The spokesman had no information on whether the suspects had been identified or apprehended, he said. “It’s more frustrating than it is scary,” the owner of the home told The Times. “I feel lucky that no one got hurt.” Los Angeles Times

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HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

An outbreak at a Corte Madera elementary school has taken place after parents knowingly sent their COVID-19-positive child and a sibling to school last month in violation of isolation and quarantine rules, officials said. The child tested positive for the virus during the week of Nov. 8, according to Brett Geithman, superintendent of the Larkspur-Corte Madera School District. Both children continued to attend school the rest of that week and into the following week. Under Marin County’s current public health orders, the parents could face a misdemeanor charge for failing to isolate for 10 days after a positive COVID-19 test. CBS Bay Area

Medina Spirit, winner of this year’s Kentucky Derby, collapsed and died Monday morning while breezing at Santa Anita. No cause of death was announced, but the early indications are that it was a heart attack. A necropsy will be performed. Los Angeles Times

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

The 40 best California experiences: Winter edition. The holidays are wonderful in California. While much of America is experiencing plummeting temperatures, the many different climates available in various regions of the state mean you can choose what backdrop you want during the season. The Times has compiled a list of restaurants, attractions, resorts and so much more to give you ideas for how you can spend this special time of the year. I certainly enjoyed this interactive map complete with links and photos of every item. Los Angeles Times

A man and a snowman
Moorpark resident Matteo Jackson, 21, puts the finishing touches on a snowman at Big Bear Lake in 2020.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

A San Francisco restaurant has apologized after sparking an uproar by asking three uniformed police officers to leave because their firearms made employees “uncomfortable.” Co-owners Rachel Sillcocks and Kristina Liedags Compton wrote in an Instagram post for their brunch eatery Hilda and Jesse: “These are stressful times and we handled this badly.” Police Chief William Scott responded to the incident on Twitter, explaining that his department asks officers to “support local businesses and get to know those they’re sworn to safeguard.” The situation is reminiscent of another situation at an East Oakland restaurant, as explained in an episode of the podcast “Rightnowish” hosted by Pendarvis Harshaw. Sacramento Bee

Free online games

Get our free daily crossword puzzle, sudoku, word search and arcade games in our new game center at latimes.com/games.

CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: 64 San Diego: 61 San Francisco: This cat is super annoyed because it was saved from a fire. 61 San Jose: 64 Fresno: 58 Sacramento: 59

AND FINALLY

Today’s California memory is from Marge Holley:

In 1967, we bought a house at auction. Houses were being sold and moved to make way for freeways. This was on Indianola way in La Canada. It was moved 61 miles. The house was cut in half and actually had a fireplace. This was quite an adventure. Then, the new foundation was put in and the walls repaired where it was cut in half. The garage was also part of the move. At 5 AM the movers knocked on the door and asked people to move their cars off the street so a house could go by. Imagine being awakened at 5 AM to move your car so a house goes by.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments to essentialcalifornia@latimes.com.


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