What is the Athena Project?
The Athena Project is a collective effort to hold Sonoma Academy accountable for failing to protect students from Marco Morrone during his 18 years of employment at the school. We are led by seven alumni: Grace Erny (class of 2008), Emma McAleavy (class of 2008), Linnet Vacha (class of 2008), Clio Wilde (class of 2011), Savannah Turley (class of 2012), Morgan Apostle (class of 2014), and Miranda Rush (class of 2014).
What are you hoping to achieve?
- We are asking Sonoma Academy to formally investigate the full extent of Marco’s grooming, harassment, and abuse of students. As part of this investigation, Sonoma Academy must also review the extent to which staff and faculty members failed to respond appropriately to reports and indications that Marco was grooming, harassing, and abusing students.
- We are asking Sonoma Academy to identify all victims who wish to be known through an equitable, transparent, and mutually agreeable process; and will offer Marco’s victims the opportunity to be involved in the restorative process.
- We are asking Sonoma Academy to pay restitution to every person who was harmed by Marco’s behavior and the school’s negligence.
What is Grooming?
Sexual grooming is “a process by which a person prepares a child, significant adults, and the environment for the abuse of this child. Specific goals include gaining access to the child, gaining the child’s compliance and maintaining the child’s secrecy to avoid disclosure” (Craven et al. 2006: 297).
Grooming of underage students by teachers is, unfortunately, a common and well-documented phenomenon. In a K-12 school environment, “close contact with students, who are often eager to please their teachers, allows offenders the opportunity to 'groom' students for eventual misconduct, by giving special attention and rewards while slowly increasing the amount of touching or other sexual behaviors. In this way, offenders exploit students’ need to please and take advantage of the power they have over grades, discipline, playing time, and other rewards students may covet” (Grant et al. 2017: 2).
A recent review of the literature on sexual grooming reveals common patterns of behavior followed by abusers as they attempt to gain sexual access to children. These behaviors include: discussing sexual matters with children, sharing pornographic content with children, attempting to create reasons to see children after school hours (by giving rides, offering or asking for services, etc.), and slowly desensitizing children to touch by gradually escalating from seemingly accidental physical contact into more intimate touching such as wrestling or playing physical games (Winters et al. 2017: 726-727). Alumni have described Marco as engaging in all of these behaviors with minors over the course of his employment at Sonoma Academy.
- Craven, S.; Brown, S.; and Gilchrist, E. (2006). “Sexual Grooming of Children: Review of Literature and Theoretical Considerations.” Journal of Sexual Aggression 12:3, 287-299.
- Grant, B.; Wilkerson, S.B.; Pelton, D.; Cosby, A.; and Henschel, M. (2017). “A Case Study of K–12 School Employee Sexual Misconduct: Lessons Learned from Title IX Policy Implementation.” Office of Justice Programs’ National Criminal Justice Reference Service.
- Winters, G. M. and Jeglic, E.L. (2017). “Stages of Sexual Grooming: Recognizing Potentially Predatory Behaviors of Child Molesters.” Deviant Behavior 38:6, 724-733.
What does the law say about grooming of minors and mandated reporting?
In California, it is illegal to annoy or molest any minor under the age of 18 while motivated by an unnatural or abnormal sexual interest in the minor, according to California Penal Code Section 647.6.
Under California Penal Code Section 243.4(c), if you “touch an intimate part of another person for the purpose of sexual arousal, sexual gratification, or sexual abuse, and the victim is at the time unconscious of the nature of the act because the perpetrator fraudulently represented that the touching served a professional purpose,” you may be found guilty of sexual battery. Under the California Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act (CANRA, California Penal Code Sections 11164-11174.3), all teachers, administrators, and employees of organizations whose duties require direct contact with and supervision of children are mandated reporters. Mandated reporters are legally required to make a report to law enforcement whenever they know of or reasonably suspect that a child has been a victim of child abuse. This includes physical abuse, sexual abuse, or emotional maltreatment. As of June 9, 2021, Sonoma Academy and their legal counsel maintain that none of the reports they have received would trigger mandated reporting to California law enforcement. Our attorney and several child abuse experts with whom we have consulted disagree.