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The lawsuit says Faculty at a top art school has been attracting students for decades

The breadth of the 236-page complaint is amazing because its details are unsettling.

A total of 56 art alumni reported that dozens of teachers and managers engaged in or allowed their sexual, physical and emotional abuse while they were in school. Overall, the misconduct spanned more than 40 years, beginning in the late 1960s, according to the lawsuit, and included assaults in a classroom, a private home off campus, a motel room on a highway. and a tour bus rumbled through Italy.

Respected figures in the dance and performing arts circles who had worked at the school are said to have participated.

The lawsuit, filed late last year, accuses faculty members at the prestigious school University of North Carolina School of the Arts of a variety of abuses including rape. Court papers describe complaints from students about being watched over their cards and about alcoholic dance parties in which 14-year-olds are required completely undress and perform ballet moves.

Melissa Cummings, 42, who describes in an interview and court documents as being invited to such parties: a 1995 student. She said she reported abuse with police and school officials when she was a senior there in 1997, but little has changed.

“Your adolescence is very formative,” she said. “It destroyed me.”

Some of the teachers listed in the lawsuit as the worst offenders are now dead. Others have yet to respond in the court papers; Still others declined or did not respond to requests for comment.

But the school itself, the first respondent in this case, expressed concern about the gravity of the allegations and sought to assure the public that it had changed.

Brian Cole, principal of the School of the Arts, said in a statement: “Personally, I was appalled to learn of the allegations in the complaint. “I respect the tremendous courage our alumni have had to come forward and share their experiences, and we are committed to responding with empathy and openness in listening to stories. their.” He also noted that “Today’s UNCSA has system 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 papers, the boarding high school and university enroll students 12 years of age and younger to study ballet, modern dance, music and other disciplines on a campus that includes seasonal programs. summer. It became part of the University of North Carolina system in 1972.

A number of former students, teachers and school administrators have said over the years that their experiences at the school have been shaped and increasingly enriching. But the plaintiffs describe a backdrop of rampant misconduct, and their lawsuit, filed in Forsyth County Superior Court, says it happened, not in a year or two, but in decades, at one of the most famous art schools in the country.

The lawsuit seeks damages from 29 individuals named as defendants, eight of whom are accused in court papers of directly abusing the student. In addition, court documents said, 19 former managers allegedly did nothing to stop a culture of exploitation so pervasive that some students nicknamed two porn teachers. dancers are described as the most abusive – Richard Kuch and Richard Gain. They were called “crotch” and “groin”, according to court papers, which said that teachers often invited their teenage students to a country house, called “The Farm”. “, where students said they were abused.

Mr. Kuch and Mr. Gain resigned from the art school in 1995 after the school’s principal initiated termination proceedings against them. Mr. Kuch is dead in 2020, according to public records. Attempts to contact Mr. Gain were unsuccessful.

The lawsuit was filed under the terms of a lookback law passed in North Carolina in 2019 that has opened the door for adult victims of child sexual abuse to sue individuals and organizations for which they are responsible, even if the statute of limitations for their complaints has expired. (Current law face legal challenges.)

Similar laws apply in about two dozen states, including California and New York Following high profile sexual abuse cases by authority figures has prompted lawmakers to rethink the wisdom of imposing a legal time limit on reporting sex crimes. sex.

Gloria Allred, one of the attorneys representing the victims in the case, said: “Our case against UNCSA is an important example of a national trend. “We take great pride in our clients for speaking the truth before authority and finding their courage to hold accountable those they believe have betrayed them.”

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

At the time, the UNC Board of Governors established an independent committee “to review and respond to the concerns raised” and produced a report that found “no sexual misconduct.” popular at UNCSA,” Prime Minister Cole wrote in a letter to the school community last fall.

In the current case, former students say they have suffered abuse in part because their tormentors sit on the jury that decides who reads each year. Court papers say the students were willing to accept the abuse of teachers who deemed them useless, that their chosen profession in the arts would be cruel and just by doing whatever that their elite instructors require in order for them to succeed in their careers.

“It’s a very difficult thing to explain,” said Christopher Alloways-Ramsey, one of the plaintiffs who accused the ballet teacher, Duncan Noble and others. (Mr. Noble’s work as an art instructor has been praised in Obituaries in The New York Times in 2002.)

“You are 16 years old and you really want to have a ballet career. The person you idolize is saying to you, ‘I can give you that.’ The underlying implication is that something will be exchanged,” added Mr Alloways-Ramsey, 53. “But as a young person, you really don’t understand what that could be.”

Court documents say that in the 1980s, teachers instituted mandatory “bikini” days in modern dance classes. In the years that followed, teenage drama students were asked to “seduce” their professors and were instructed to kiss each other lustfully for long periods of time. Former students said instructors include Mr. Kuch, Mr. Gain and Melissa Hayden, now dead former star of the New York City Ballet, often told them that they needed to have sex to benefit their performance as dancers. Ms. Hayden is described in court papers as a verbal and physical abuse instructor who, for example, hit a student in the leg with a stick and slapped another student on the back so much that she This student fell off his feet.

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

“It’s a broken soul” speak Frank Holliday, 64, of Brooklyn, who described the trauma of having to squeeze through his dorm room window after having sex with Mr Kuch to avoid attention and embarrassment.

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

In the current lawsuit, Mr Shipps is alleged to have summoned a 17-year-old student to his school’s office where he had inappropriate sex with her every day of the work week.

Contacted by phone, Mr. Shipps declined to comment.

The lawsuit also alleges the so-called administrators were accused of failing to protect the students, claiming that they “knew or ought to have known about the sexual exploitation and abuse of minors and other students are happening” and they “unreasonably and severely allow this outrageous behavior to continue. ”

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

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

When Mr. Soderlund’s lawsuit was filed many years ago, and in recent months as the case has gained attention, several former faculty members and school administrators have said they had no knowledge of the type. misconduct described in the case.

In a phone interview, Joan Sanders-Seidel, 88, a former ballet instructor who has worked in the dance department for more than 20 years, described the students as one of the most talented and needed. most industrious in the country, and a pleasure to teach. .

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

Sanders-Seidel’s stepdaughter attended the school and they had only recently discussed the abuse allegations, she said.

Ms Sanders-Seidel said: “I was amazed at how stupid I was – I don’t know how. “I myself have never been an innocent, innocent little dancer. So if I doubt something, I probably just brush it off.”

Kirsten Noyes contributed research.

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/20/arts/dance/north-carolina-school-of-the-arts-lawsuit.html The lawsuit says Faculty at a top art school has been attracting students for decades

Fry Electronics Team

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