The magnitude of the 236-page complaint is as staggering as its details are disturbing.
A total of 56 former art students say dozens of teachers and administrators participated in or admitted to their sexual, physical and emotional abuse while in school. All in all, the misconduct according to the lawsuit spanned more than 40 years, beginning in the late 1960s, and included violence in classrooms, private off-campus homes, a motel room near a highway and a tour bus hurtling 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 the faculty of the prestigious University of North Carolina School of the Arts of a range of abuses, including rape. Court papers describe complaints from students of being groped, stroked by their tights and about alcohol-based dances where students as young as 14 are told to strip naked and perform ballet moves.
“We were kids and we were brave enough to come forward and no adult representing the institution was as brave as us,” said Melissa Cummings, 42, who described in an interview and described court documents that she was invited to parties. as a college student in 1995. She said she reported the abuse to police and school officials when she was in high school there in 1997, but little changed.
“Your teenage years are so formative,” she said. “It destroyed me.”
Some of the teachers who were characterized in the lawsuit as the worst offenders are now dead. Others have yet to respond in court documents; 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 it has changed.
“I was personally shocked to be made aware of the allegations in the complaint,” Brian Cole, the 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 by listening to their stories.” He also noted that “UNCSA today has systems in place that allow 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 with summer programs. It became part of the University of North Carolina system in 1972.
Over the years, some former students, teachers and school administrators have said that their experience at the institution has been formative and enriching. But the plaintiffs portray an environment of rampant misconduct, and their lawsuit, filed in Forsyth County Superior Court, says it took place not a year or two, but decades at one of the country’s most renowned art schools.
The lawsuit seeks damages from 29 individuals named as defendants, eight of whom are accused in court documents of direct assault on students. In addition, court documents say 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 “Cross” and “Liezen,” according to court papers, which state that the teachers often invited their underage students to a rural home known as “The Farm,” where students said they were being abused.
Mr Kuch and Mr Gain resigned from the art school in 1995 after the school’s chancellor initiated termination proceedings against them. mr. Kuch passed away in 2020, according to public records. Attempts to reach Mr. Gain were unsuccessful.
The charges were filed under the terms of a lookback law passed 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 their claims are over the statute of limitations. had expired. . (The law currently faces legal challenges.)
Similar laws are in effect in about two dozen states, including California and New York in response to high-profile cases of sex abuse by authority figures that prompted lawmakers to rethink the wisdom of legally imposing time limits for reporting sex crimes.
“Our lawsuit against UNCSA is an important example of a national trend,” said Gloria Allred, one of the attorneys representing the victims in the case. “We are very proud of our customers for speaking the truth to power and finding their courage to hold accountable those they believe have betrayed them.”
Some allegations had come up publicly in a 1995 lawsuit filed 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 the time, the UNC’s board of directors formed an independent committee “to review and respond to the concerns raised,” and produced a report that “demonstrated no widespread sexual misconduct at UNCSA,” Chancellor Cole wrote in a letter last year. to the campus community. fall.
In the current case, former students say they endured the abuse in part because their tormentors sat on juries that could decide each year who to take over. The court papers say the students were prepared to accept the abuse by teachers who suggested they were worthless, that their chosen profession in the arts would be cruel and that only by doing what their elite instructors asked would they be able to. to succeed in their career.
“It’s very hard to explain,” said Christopher Alloways-Ramsey, one of the prosecutors who accused a ballet teacher, Duncan Noble and others, of abusing him. (Mr. Noble’s work as an art teacher was praised in his 2002 DailyExpertNews obituary.)
“You are 16 years old and you really want a ballet career. The person you adore 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 young person you don’t really understand what that could be.”
According to court documents, teachers held mandatory “bikini” days in modern dance class in the 1980s. In later years, teen drama students were told to “seduce” their professors and instructed to kiss each other lustfully for extended periods of time. Former students said instructors, including Mr. Kuch, mr. Gain and Melissa Hayden, the now-deceased former star of New York City Ballet, often told them they needed sex to enhance their performance as dancers. Ms. Hayden was described in court papers as a verbally and physically abusive instructor, for example hitting one student on the leg with a stick and hitting another on the back so hard that the student fell off her feet.
Some of the most egregious abuses took place in private settings, according to the indictment, which said a ballet teacher once sat on a toilet in his hotel room and watched a student bathe. In another case reported in the suit, a trombone teacher allegedly led a 16-year-old student into a darkroom at an off-campus party, unzipped his pants and assaulted her.
“It was crushing” said Frank Holliday, 64, of 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 for the University of Michigan in 1989, pleaded guilty in federal court in 2021 to one count of transporting a minor across state lines to participate. to sexual activities. According to multiple news reports, Mr. Shipps retired from the University of Michigan in February 2019. His sentencing is set for February 17.
In the current lawsuit, Mr. Shipps is accused of calling a 17-year-old student to his school office where he engaged in inappropriate sexual relations with her every day of the work week.
Mr Shipps was reached by phone and declined to comment.
The lawsuit also accuses the allegedly accused administrators of failing to protect the students, claiming that they “clearly knew or should have known about the sexual exploitation and abuse of minors and other students that took place” and that they “conscientiously committed these blatant and outrageous behavior to continue.”
Ethan Stiefel, a former star of the American Ballet Theater who later became dean of the art school is an administrator listed as having held a position of responsibility at the time of some of the alleged abuse.
Attempts to reach Mr. Stiefel by phone and email were unsuccessful.
When the lawsuit of Mr. Soderlund was filed years ago, and in recent months, when the new lawsuit drew attention, some former faculty members and school administrators said they had no knowledge of the type 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 some of the most talented and diligent in the country, and a joy to teach. to give .
“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.
“It amazes me how stupid I was—how unconscious,” said Mrs. Sanders-Seidel. “I’ve never been a naive, innocent dancer myself. So if I suspected something, I probably just brushed it off.”
Kirsten Noyes contributed to research.