Lawsuit says top arts school faculty preyed on students for decades

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The breadth of the 236-page complaint is as stunning as its details are disturbing.

A total of 56 former arts students say dozens of teachers and administrators participated in or allowed their sexual, physical and emotional abuse while at school. Overall, the misconduct spanned more than 40 years, beginning in the late 1960s, according to the lawsuit, and included assaults in classrooms, off-campus private homes, a motel room near a highway and a rumbling tour bus through Italy.

Respected personalities from the world of dance and the performing arts who have worked at the school are said to have participated.

The lawsuit, filed late last year, accuses professors at the prestigious University of North Carolina School of the Arts of a series of abuses, including rape. Court documents describe student complaints that they were groped, fondled through their leotards and alcohol-fueled dance parties where students as young as 14 were told to strip naked and perform moves ballet.

“We were kids, and we were brave enough to come forward and not a single adult who represented the institution was as brave as we were,” said Melissa Cummings, 42, who described in an interview and court documents that she was invited to parties such as a student in 1995. She said she reported the abuse to police and school officials when she was a senior there in 1997, but little changed .

“Your teenage years are so formative,” she said. “It destroyed me.”

Some of the qualified teachers in the worst offenders trial are now dead. Others have yet to respond in court papers; still others declined or did not respond to requests for comment.

But the school itself, which is the main defendant in the case, expressed concern about the seriousness of the allegations and sought to assure the public that this had changed.

“I was personally horrified when I learned of the allegations contained in the complaint,” Brian Cole, the Chancellor of the School of the Arts, said in a statement. “I respect the immense courage it took for our alumni to come forward and share their experiences, and we are committed to responding with empathy and openness as we listen to their stories.” He also noted that “UNCSA today has systems in place for students to report abuse of any kind.”

The school was the nation’s first public art conservatory when it opened in the 1960s as the North Carolina School of the Arts in a quiet neighborhood just outside of downtown Winston – Salem. According to court documents, the residential high school and college recruited students as young as 12 to study ballet, modern dance, music and other disciplines on a campus that included summer programs. It became part of the University of North Carolina system in 1972.

Some former students, teachers and principals have said over the years that their experience at the institution has been formative and enriching. But the plaintiffs describe a backdrop of rampant misconduct, and their lawsuit, filed in Forsyth County Superior Court, says it unfolded, not for a year or two, but for decades, in one of the most renowned art schools in the country.

The lawsuit seeks damages from 29 people named as defendants, eight of whom are accused in court documents of directly abusing students. What’s more, according to court documents, 19 former administrators did nothing to stop a culture of exploitation so widespread that some students coined nicknames for two dance teachers described as the most prolific abusers – Richard Kuch and Richard Gain. . They were known as ‘Crotch’ and ‘Groin’, according to court documents, which say teachers often invited their underage students to a rural house, known as ‘The Farm’, where students said they had been abused.

Mr. Kuch and Mr. Gain resigned from the arts school in 1995 after the school’s chancellor initiated dismissal proceedings against them. Mr. Kuch is deceased in 2020, according to public records. Attempts to reach Mr. Gain were unsuccessful.

The lawsuit was filed under a retrospective law passed in North Carolina in 2019 that opened a window for adult victims of child sexual abuse to sue the individuals and institutions they hold responsible, even if the statute of limitations for their claims had expired. . (The law is currently facing legal challenges.)

Similar laws are in place in about two dozen states, including California and New York following high-profile cases of sexual abuse by authority figures that led lawmakers to rethink the wisdom of legally imposing time limits on reporting sex crimes.

“Our lawsuit against UNCSA is an important example of a national trend,” said Gloria Allred, who is among the attorneys representing victims in the case. “We are very proud of our clients for speaking truth to power and finding their courage to hold accountable those who they believe have betrayed them.”

Some of the allegations had emerged publicly in a lawsuit filed in 1995 by Christopher Soderlund, who is also a plaintiff in the current case. Mr. Soderlund’s lawsuit was ultimately dismissed on the grounds that the three-year statute of limitations on his claims had expired.

At that time, the UNC board of governors formed an independent commission “to review and address the concerns expressed” and produced a report that found “no widespread sexual misconduct at UNCSA,” it said. writes Chancellor Cole in a letter to the campus community the last grave.

In this case, former students say they endured the abuse in part because their abusers sat on the juries that had the power to decide who to readmit each year. Court documents say the students were groomed to accept abuse from teachers who suggested they were worthless, that the artistic professions they had chosen would be cruel, and that only by doing whatever their elite instructors would demand that they could succeed in their careers.

“It’s a very hard thing to explain,” said Christopher Alloways-Ramsey, one of the plaintiffs who accused ballet teacher Duncan Noble and others of abusing him. (Mr. Noble’s work as an art teacher was praised in his 2002 New York Times obituary.)

“You are 16 and you desperately want a career in ballet. The person you idolize says to you, “I can give you that. The underlying subtext is that there will be something in return,” added Mr Alloways-Ramsey, 53. “But as a youngster you don’t really understand what it could be.”

Court documents indicate that in the 1980s, teachers held mandatory “bikini” days in modern dance classes. Later, teenage drama students were told to “seduce” their teachers and kiss each other lustfully for long periods of time. Former students said instructors including Mr. Kuch, Mr. Gain and Melissa Hayden, the now deceased former New York City Ballet star, often told them they needed to have sex to benefit from their performances as dancers. Ms Hayden was described in court documents as a verbally and physically abusive instructor, who, for example, beat one student on the leg with a stick and slapped another on the back so hard it knocked the rises from his feet.

Some of the most egregious abuses occurred in private places, according to the complaint, which says a ballet teacher once sat on the toilet in his hotel room and watched a female student as she was bathing. In another case reported in the lawsuit, a trombone teacher allegedly led a 16-year-old student into a dark room at an off-campus party, unzipped her pants, and assaulted her.

“It was soul crushing” noted Frank Holliday, 64, from Brooklyn, who described the trauma of having to crawl through a dorm window after having sex with Mr Kuch to avoid being noticed and embarrassed.

A former instructor charged in the lawsuit, Stephen Shipps, who taught violin and left in 1989 for the University of Michigan, pleaded guilty in 2021 in federal court to one count of transporting a minor across state lines to engage in sexual activity. Mr. Shipps retired from the University of Michigan in February 2019, according to multiple reports. His sentencing is set for February 17.

In the ongoing trial, Mr Shipps is accused of summoning a 17-year-old student to his school office where he had inappropriate sex with her every day of the work week.

Reached by telephone, Mr. Shipps declined to comment.

The lawsuit also accuses the so-called defendant administrators of failing to protect the students, saying they “clearly knew or should have known about the sexual exploitation and abuse of underage students and other students who were producing” and that they “unknowingly allowed this egregious and outrageous conduct to continue.

Ethan Stiefel, a former star of the American Ballet Theater who later became dean of the school of arts, is an administrator listed as having held a position of responsibility at the time of some of the alleged abuses.

Attempts to reach Mr. Stiefel by phone and email were unsuccessful.

When Mr. Soderlund’s lawsuit was filed years ago, and in recent months as the new court case drew attention, some former faculty members and school administrators said they had no no knowledge of the type of misconduct described in the case.

In a phone interview, Joan Sanders-Seidel, 88, a former faculty member who taught ballet and worked in the dance department for more than 20 years, described the students as some of the most talented and industrious. of the country, and a joy to teach. .

“It was very special,” she said of the school, adding that she “loved every minute” of working there.

Ms Sanders-Seidel’s own daughter attended the school and they only recently discussed the abuse allegations, she said.

“I’m surprised at how stupid I was – how uninformed I was,” Ms Sanders-Seidel said. “I was never a naïve, innocent little dancer myself. So if I suspected something, I probably brushed it off.

Kirsten Noyes contributed research.

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