Thirty-nine former high school students at UNC School of the Arts filed a new lawsuit in Forsyth Superior Court on Monday, alleging that they endured a culture of rampant sexual abuse and exploitation and that administrators and faculty failed to do anything about it.
The former students attended the arts conservatory between the years 1969 and 2012. One of the former students is Blair Tindall, author of “Mozart in the Jungle.” The book, which was made into an Amazon series, detailed her allegations of sexual abuse while she was a high school student at UNCSA, where she played oboe.
In the lawsuit, she said she was sexually abused by three different faculty members — Joseph Robinson, Bruce Moss and Phillip Dunigan. All three men are named as defendants in the lawsuit.
Also named as a defendant is Stephen Shipps, a former violin professor at UNCSA. The lawsuit said that Shipps was known to sexually abuse and rape young female students while he taught there and despite the allegations of sexual misconduct, he was allowed to leave the school quietly to teach at the University of Michigan, where he was also accused of sexual misconduct with students. Shipps pleaded guilty last week in federal court to one count of transporting a 16-year-old girl across state lines to have sex with her.
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The lawsuit also includes allegations of sexual, emotional and physical abuse by the late dance teacher and ballerina Melissa Hayden. The lawsuit also makes allegations that Hayden’s husband, Don Coleman, who is now dead, sexually exploited students by plying them with alcohol and inviting them to his and Hayden’s house, where he coerced them to get naked, watch pornography and have sex with each other. Coleman also made sexual advances toward some female students, who rebuffed him, the lawsuit said.
Coleman was never charged, but according to the lawsuit, the school banned him from coming to campus. Despite the ban, the lawsuit alleges, he kept returning to the campus.
At one point, he said he “owns the school,” and the lawsuit said school officials didn’t want to discipline Hayden because of her prominence at the school and in the dance community.
In total, the lawsuit names 24 former faculty members and administrators as defendants, as well as UNCSA as an institution. Those defendants include former chancellors Wade Hobgood and John Mauceri and former interim chancellor Gretchen Bataille.
The latest move comes on the heels of a lawsuit filed in Forsyth Superior Court on Sept. 29 by seven UNCSA alumni who attended high school in the 1980s. The seven alumni are plaintiffs in the new lawsuit filed Monday.
One of the plaintiffs of that lawsuit, Christopher Soderlund, previously filed suit against the school in 1995, alleging that two dance instructors, Richard Kuch and Richard Gain, had coerced him into a sexual relationship when he was 16 and later belittled him. That previous lawsuit alleged that administrators knew about the abuse and failed to do anything about it.
His suit was dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired. The 2019 SAFE Child Act created additional time – until December 2021 – during which abuse survivors can file suit.
The lead attorney is Gloria Allred, who is nationally known for representing sexual harassment and sexual abuse victims. Her clients have included alleged victims of Harvey Weinstein, R. Kelly and Bill Cosby.
Lisa Lanier and her law firm, Lanier Law Group, are also involved in representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against UNCSA. In a news release, Lanier said that after news coverage of the first lawsuit, more people came forward with their own stories about being abused and exploited while students at UNCSA.
“The bravery of these additional victims coming forward has resulted in our filing of a second lawsuit today that names 39 former UNCSA high school students who were victims of sexual abuse and exploitation while attending the school,” Lanier said. “The complaint alleges that the institutional betrayal of its students by UNCSA was schoolwide, and it existed in the music department, the dance department, the visual arts department, the drama department and even among the residence hall and security staff.”
In a statement, UNCSA officials said that the allegations in the lawsuit were “deeply disturbing” and ran “counter to the university’s institutional values.”
“The current administration intends to respond to this litigation by listening to the accounts with openness, appreciating the courage it took for our alumni to share their experiences, and taking steps to acknowledge and address any historical sexual misconduct with candor and compassion,” the statement from the school said.
School officials said in the statement that UNCSA is “committed to providing a learning, teaching and working environment that is safe and free from all forms of harassment and discrimination and enables students to thrive.” Officials said that the school has safeguards in place against abuse and resources for students to report allegations of sexual misconduct and get needed help.
UNCSA was founded in 1963 and, as the lawsuit makes clear, recruited boys and girls as young as 12 to come to the Winston-Salem campus to study ballet, modern dance, music and other disciplines. But the school abdicated its responsibilities to keep those students safe, the lawsuit alleges.
“Despite the clear obligation to the boys and girls who chose to attend the school, UNCSA and the Defendant Administrators instead permitted, participated in, encouraged, allowed, perpetuated and/or condoned the development of a culture of sexual abuse and exploitation of the young students in their care,” the lawsuit said.
This went on, the lawsuit alleges, for 30 years or more and “harmed potentially hundreds of students, including the Plaintiffs.”
Students fell into a trap – they were groomed from the beginning that such sexual exploitation was normal and necessary for them to become successful artistic performers. They were also taught that if they reported the abuse, they could ruin their chances of staying at the school and destroy any chance of professional success, the lawsuit said.
In the lawsuit, the 39 plaintiffs describe rampant sexual harassment and abuse. Many of them came to the school as young teenagers and were repeatedly told they needed to have sex to become great performers, the lawsuit said. Many times, faculty members touched them inappropriately or made crude sexual comments in class.
Many of the allegations centered around Richard Kuch, who is dead, and Richard Gain. The lawsuit said that everyone knew that the two men were sexual predators who groomed young male dancers and coerced them into having sex with them at their farm in East Bend.
But Kuch and Gain weren’t the only ones. The lawsuit also mentions sexual abuse allegations against other faculty members, including Hayden, Mel Tomlinson and Duncan Noble, all of whom have died.
Also named as a defendant in this lawsuit is former ballet professor Gyula Pandi, who is accused of sexually abusing a female student repeatedly at his home and while on school trips out of the country. Pandi is also the teacher mentioned in the lawsuit who told then-Vice Chancellor William “Bill” Pruitt that he had a hard time recruiting male dancers because of Kuch and Gain.
The lawsuit makes numerous claims of negligence, sexual battery and infliction of emotional distress against the individual defendants and UNCSA. Many of the plaintiffs have said they have been driven to suicide and drug addiction and have spent years in counseling trying to unpack their years of abuse at UNCSA.
UNCSA has been here before, with the 1995 lawsuit. That lawsuit brought scrutiny from the N.C. General Assembly.
After the 1995 lawsuit, school administrators convened a commission to investigate the allegations of widespread sexual abuse. In November 1995, the commission that UNCSA leaders created released its findings. The commission said it had found “no substantial basis” for believing that the school’s chancellor and top administrators had “failed to act properly” on sexual abuse allegations.
The commission also concluded that reports of widespread sexual misconduct between teachers and students had been exaggerated, according to a Nov. 10, 1995, article in the News & Record of Greensboro.
The Charlotte Observer cited unpublished documents that showed that 24 staff members were accused of harassing or having improper relationships with students and that out of 13 who were still working at the school in 1995, 12 of them continued to work on the campus several years afterward.
Five accused faculty members said in interviews with the Charlotte Observer that they were never told about the accusations and they were never given the opportunity to defend themselves.