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Allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation at UNCSA are not new
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Allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation at UNCSA are not new

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Everyone knew and no one did anything about it. That is the main allegation at the center of a lawsuit filed at the end of September against UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, one of the top arts schools in the country.

Seven UNCSA alumni who attended as high school students in the 1980s filed the lawsuit in Forsyth Superior Court and and also filed seven individual lawsuits with the N.C. Industrial Commission. Their allegations paint a sordid picture of UNCSA as a place where teachers regularly and repeatedly had sex with high school students, and administrators ignored or failed to do anything about the abuse.

Everyone knew and no one did anything about it. That’s the refrain that comes across in the 51-page lawsuit filed in Forsyth Superior Court as well as those pending with the Industrial Commission. According to the lawsuits, the students left the Winston-Salem campus broken.

Decades later, as adults, they are still dealing with their trauma in self-destructive ways such as drug and alcohol abuse. In some cases, they have attempted suicide. Dreams they once had of performing professionally were dashed due to the abuse they suffered, the lawsuits allege.

Gloria Allred, a California attorney known for her advocacy and legal representation of sexual assault and sexual harassment victims, is the leading lawyer for the seven UNCSA alumni, aided by local Greensboro attorney Lisa Lanier and her law firm. They are asking for the lawsuit to proceed as a class action, saying that there are potentially more than 1,000 former students who are victims of sexual abuse and exploitation at the school.

But as shocking as the allegations in the new lawsuits are, they’re not new.

Cynthia Foster, who graduated in 1997 as a member of the inaugural School of Filmmaking class, still remembers attending a summer high school program for drama and being told she had to come to class in a bikini.

She couldn’t do it and believes that, as a result, she was not accepted into the college program for drama. Foster did get accepted into UNCSA’s School of Costume Design and Technology but left after two years. She returned in 1993 as a member of the first class for the School of Filmmaking.

Throughout her time at UNCSA, it was considered normal for faculty members to have sex with students, Foster said.

Many of the allegations in the lawsuits center on Richard Kuch, then an assistant dean in the School of Dance, and dance instructor Richard Gain. According to the lawsuits, they were known on campus for forcing young male dance students into sexual relationships and making inappropriate sexual comments in class. They had a farm in East Bend, where they were known to have sex with high school students, the lawsuits allege. Kuch is now dead but Gain is named as a defendant in the current lawsuits. Gain has declined comment on the lawsuit.

Foster said she once went to that farm and picked up a male high school student. She never witnessed any sexual abuse, but she could tell that something was wrong.

“I see a very exhausted young dancer in the back of my car as we went back to the school,” she said.

When Foster came to UNCSA, she had already been sexually assaulted at a school she attended elsewhere, and now, she said, she was at a school where sexual abuse was happening around her. Foster said she wasn’t a victim of sexual abuse at UNCSA.

But being exposed to the abuse around her was difficult to process, she said, especially when the teachers tried to normalize it as something necessary for becoming successful in the arts. According to the lawsuits, Kuch and Gain constantly told high-school age students that they had to have sex in order to be good dancers.

“We’re dealing with people in power who have the power to put you on stage or put you in the wings,” Foster said. “We were just abused and preyed upon and they ****** with our minds all the time.”

According to Foster and other sources, the latest lawsuits came as a result of conversations on a private Facebook group for 1980s UNCSA alumni. Graduates would come to the Facebook page to reminisce about their time at the Winston-Salem arts school.

Then in February, one former female student who later became a plaintiff in the lawsuits wrote on the Facebook page to share her experience of sexual abuse.

“A faculty member sort of jumped on her,” Foster said. “I felt very protective of her because of what I was going through in my personal life. I could tell she needed a friend and protection in this group.”

The attacks grew, and another former student, a man who also eventually became a plaintiff in the lawsuit, told his story of sexual abuse. Soon, another student created a separate Facebook page that would provide a supportive place for former students to share their stories of sexual abuse that happened at UNCSA, Foster said.

Foster said she reached out to the male former student, afraid that he might try to kill himself. She urged him to seek legal representation. Foster also said she felt helping others helped her to heal from her own sexual assault.

“I felt a kinship with these survivors because I’m a survivor,” she said.

In June, she watched a Netflix documentary on Gloria Allred called “Seeing Allred.” Foster said she reached out to Allred, who responded immediately.

“I did that because it’s something that should not have been happening and it’s not OK,” Foster said.

In the midst of the latest lawsuits, UNCSA school leaders have been trying to emphasize how much the school has changed.

UNCSA chancellor Brian Cole said in a recent statement to the school’s community that UNCSA has implemented policies to prevent the kind of “appalling” misconduct that the lawsuit alleges happened in the 1970s and 1980s.

“Make no mistake about it. UNCSA is not the same institution today that it was in the 1970s and 1980s,” Cole said. “UNCSA has invested in and implemented an infrastructure to protect its community against abuse of any kind.”

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Cole also said this: “In the decades following the time of this reported misconduct, society’s understanding of child sexual abuse, of the impact of power imbalances in the educational context, and the ways in which institutions can best protect minors and create a safe learning environment have evolved significantly. None of that excuses the type of conduct alleged; however, it may provide some contextual understanding around institutional responses at the time.”

UNCSA has been here before. One of the plaintiffs in the current lawsuits made similar allegations in a lawsuit he filed against the school and several administrators and faculty members in the 1990s.

On July 19, 1995, Christopher Soderlund filed a lawsuit in Forsyth Superior Court. The allegations were explosive.

According to the lawsuits, both in 1995 and the ones filed recently, Soderlund said that when he was a high school ballet student, Kuch and Gain lavished attention on him, taking him out to their farm in East Bend. Gain repeatedly sexually abused Soderlund, and Kuch made sexual advances toward him, the suits say.

They convinced Soderlund that they had valuable contacts in the dance community as a way of continuing their sexual exploitation of him, the lawsuits said. But eventually, the two men severed their relationship with Soderlund and belittled him publicly, causing Soderlund’s life to unravel, he alleges.

When Soderlund went to several administrators, they declined to do anything about the abuse, and one of them, the late Duncan Noble, told Soderlund that he would have had sex with him, too.

The lawsuits said that even though Soderlund maintained good grades and got positive evaluations, he was not invited back to the school as a direct result of Kuch and Gain.

The 1995 lawsuit — which was eventually dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired — roiled the Winston-Salem campus and got attention from the N.C. General Assembly. School administrators convened a commission to investigate the allegations of widespread sexual abuse.

A Winston-Salem Journal investigation published on Aug. 13, 1995 revealed that Kuch and Gain carried on a pattern of sexual abuse and misconduct with students that went on for 20 years without any accountability.

And the abuse was not limited to the School of Dance. The latest lawsuits contain allegations that a group of graduate film students sought 13-year-old girls to have sex with and that the dean of the drama school had a practice called “Freshman Friday,” where he would invite male freshmen students to come into his office and he would fondle them until they got an erection.

The Journal interviewed 42 former students, seven former and current teachers and two parents over a two-week period.

“As far as I know, the school — including me — was not policing itself,” Jim Hobbs, a former instructor in the School of Design and Production, told the Journal in 1995. “This always sat badly with me, that I did not do more … I simply sat and watched this.”

Gyula Pandi, who was an instructor in the dance department and who is mentioned in the latest lawsuit, told the News & Record that he told Vice Chancellor William Pruitt that the allegations against Gain and Kuch were hampering his efforts to recruit young male dancers to UNCSA. Dance teachers around the country told Pandi that they would not send their dancers to the arts school as long as teachers such as Kuch and Gain remained employed.

According to the Journal’s investigation, the sexual abuse went unchecked because the school did not have the procedures in place that would have “enabled students to feel that they could safely report advances from teachers.”

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.

“We are confident that the school is a good place for the training of artists,” Valeria Lee, the commission’s chairwoman, said during a news conference, according to the News & Record.

The report also criticized, without identifying anyone specific, arts school administrators for not doing all they could when they did learn about sexual misconduct, the News & Record reported at the time.

In his statement made this year, Cole, the chancellor of UNCSA, said the commission “took steps to investigate the allegations and create a report which found no widespread sexual misconduct at UNCSA.” He said the report resulted in policy changes across the UNC system.

But some critics said UNCSA officials didn’t do enough.

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 the 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 an opportunity to defend themselves.

Soderlund’s 1995 lawsuit wasn’t the only instance when allegation of misconduct among faculty surfaced.

A 1991 biography of former UNCSA dance student Eddie Stierle, who died of AIDS in 1991, said Stierle had sex with an unnamed teacher when he was 16, according to the Charlotte Observer.

Blair Tindall, author of “Mozart in the Jungle,” which went on to become an Amazon series, wrote about how two teachers touched her inappropriately and that two teachers had sex with her when she was a high school oboe student at UNCSA.

The Michigan Daily, a student newspaper at the University of Michigan, published allegations that Stephen Shipps, a former violin teacher at UNCSA in the 1980s, locked the door in his office and then pushed a UNCSA student against a wall before trying to kiss her. The newspaper said that the student reported the incident but that there were other incidents of sexual misconduct involving Shipps. Shipps left UNCSA before the 1995 investigation.

Shipps is currently facing two federal counts for transporting a 16-year-old girl across state lines for the purpose of having sex.

Martha Waller, who attended UNCSA’s high school program from 1983 to 1987, said she worries about whether UNCSA officials will ignore these sexual abuse allegations. She said she hopes this doesn’t happen for the sake of the many victims who have come forward.

“To put yourself through this and not having (anything) change is telling all these victims that it didn’t matter or it wasn’t real,” she said.

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@mhewlettWSJ

"We're dealing with people in power who have the power to put you on stage or put you in the wings. We were just abused and preyed upon and they ****** with our minds all the time."

Cynthia Foster

1997 UNCSA graduate

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