Lawsuit says faculty at a top arts school preyed on students for decades

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Lawsuit says faculty at a top arts school preyed on students for decades
In an image provided by David Hillegas, The University of North Carolina School of the Arts campus. Dozens of people who studied at the school in Winston-Salem over more than 40 years say in a lawsuit that they were sexually, emotionally or physically abused there as minors. David Hillegas via The New York Times.

by Matt Stevens

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

Fifty-six former arts students say dozens of teachers and administrators participated in, or allowed, their sexual, physical and emotional abuse when 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 classrooms, private homes off campus, a motel room off a highway and a tour bus rumbling through Italy.

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

The lawsuit, filed late last year, accuses faculty at the prestigious University of North Carolina School of the Arts of a range of abuses including rape. Court papers describe student complaints of being groped, of being fondled through their leotards and of alcohol-fueled dance parties where students as young as 14 were told to completely disrobe and perform ballet moves.

“We were children, and we were brave enough to come forward and not one single adult that represented the institution was as brave as we were,” said Melissa Cummings, 42, who described in an interview and court documents being invited to such parties as a student in 1995. She said she reported the abuse to the 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 teachers characterized in the lawsuit as the worst offenders 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 lead defendant in the case, has expressed concern about the seriousness of the allegations and sought to assure the public that it has changed.

“I was personally horrified when I was made aware of the allegations in the complaint,” Brian Cole, chancellor of the School of the Arts, said in a statement. “I respect the tremendous courage it took for our alumni to come forward and share their experiences, and we are committed to responding with empathy and openness in listening 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 arts conservatory when it opened in the 1960s as the North Carolina School of the Arts in a quiet neighborhood just outside downtown Winston-Salem. According to court papers, 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 school administrators have said throughout the years that their experience at the institution had been formative and enriching. But the plaintiffs depict a setting of rampant misconduct, and their lawsuit, filed in Forsyth County Superior Court, says it occurred, not for one year or two, but for decades, at one of the country’s most renowned arts schools.

The lawsuit seeks damages from 29 individuals named as defendants, eight of whom are accused in court papers of having directly abused students. In addition, the court documents say, 19 former administrators are said to have done nothing to stop a culture of exploitation so widespread that some students invented nicknames for two dance instructors described as the most prolific abusers: Richard Kuch and Richard Gain. They were known as “Crotch” and “Groin,” according to the court papers, which say the teachers often invited their minor students to a rural home, known as “The Farm,” where students said they were abused.

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

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

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

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

Some of the allegations had emerged publicly in a 1995 lawsuit brought by Christopher Soderlund, who is also a plaintiff in the current case. Soderlund’s lawsuit was eventually 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 respond to the concerns vocalized,” and it produced a report that found “no widespread sexual misconduct at UNCSA,” Cole wrote in a letter to the campus community last fall.

In the current case, former students say they endured the abuse in part because their tormentors sat on the juries that had the power to decide who to readmit each year. The court papers say the students were groomed to accept the abuse by teachers who suggested that they were worthless, that their chosen professions in the arts would be cruel and that only by doing whatever their elite instructors demanded would they be able to succeed in their careers.

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

“You’re 16 years old and you really desperately want a career in ballet. The person you idolize is telling you, ‘I can give you that.’ The underlying subtext is that there will be something in exchange,” said Alloways-Ramsey, 53. “But as a young person, you don’t actually understand what that might be.”

The court documents say that in the 1980s teachers held mandatory “bikini” days in modern dance class. In later years, teenage drama students were told to “seduce” their professors and were instructed to kiss each other lustfully for extended periods of time. Former students said instructors including Kuch, Gain and Melissa Hayden, a now-deceased former star of New York City Ballet, often told them they needed to have sex in order to benefit their performance as dancers. Hayden was described in court papers as a verbally and physically abusive instructor, who, for example, beat a student on the leg with a stick and slapped another on the back so hard it knocked the student off her feet.

Some of the most egregious abuse occurred in private settings, according to the complaint, which said a ballet instructor once sat on a toilet in his hotel room and watched a student as she bathed. In another instance reported in the suit, a trombone teacher is said to have led a 16-year-old student into a dark room during an off-campus party, unzipped his pants and assaulted her.

“It was soul crushing,” said Frank Holliday, 64, of Brooklyn, who described the trauma of having to crawl through a dorm-room window after having sex with Kuch to avoid notice and embarrassment.

A former instructor accused in the suit, 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. Shipps retired from the University of Michigan in February 2019, according to multiple news reports. His sentencing is set for Feb. 17.

In the current lawsuit, Shipps is accused of having summoned a 17-year-old student to his school office where he engaged in inappropriate sexual relations with her every day of the workweek.

Reached by telephone, Shipps declined to comment.

The suit also accuses the so-called defendant administrators of failing to protect the students, asserting they “clearly knew or should have known of the sexual exploitation and abuse of minor and other students that was occurring” and that they “unconscionably allowed this egregious and outrageous conduct to continue.”

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

Attempts to reach Stiefel by telephone and email were unsuccessful.

When 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 have said they had no knowledge of the sort of misconduct described in the case.

In a telephone 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 among the most talented and industrious in 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.

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

“I’m surprised about how stupid I was — how unaware,” Sanders-Seidel said. “I was never a naive, innocent little dancer myself. So if I suspected anything, I probably just brushed it off.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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