RALEIGH, N.C. — Seven alumni have sued North Carolina’s most prestigious arts school, accusing leaders of ignoring evidence that faculty and other adults on campus sexually abused them while they were underage students.
The former students, each of whom studied dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in the 1980s, listed allegations against teachers that include inappropriate comments and fondling in class, as well as violent sexual assault off-campus.
UNCSA opened in 1965 as the nation’s first public arts conservatory, housing both high school and university students. Considered by many to be a jewel in the University of North Carolina system, its founders envisioned a salon-like utopia, where artists would pass their craft on to young performers. About 1,250 students are enrolled today.
The former students’ lawsuit says some teachers, including Richard Kuch and Richard Gain, regularly touched students’ breasts, buttocks and groins to push them into straighter posture or higher leaps. They and another dance teacher, the late Duncan Noble, are accused of inviting underage students to their off-campus homes and sexually assaulting them, in one case leaving a student with bruises and bite marks on his chest.
One former student said Kuch demanded that she dance more sexually. He said she needed to have sex with a Black man to loosen up, and forced a Black classmate to dance provocatively with her in front of their peers.
The lawsuit also lists a series of sordid stories from other departments in the school.
They include “Freshman Friday,” when a Drama Department dean called first-year boys to his office to fondle them, saying erections indicated which ones could be successful in the field.
Graduate film students hunted down 13-year-old girls for sex, dubbing themselves the “vagina hunters.”
The alumni asked that the lawsuit be certified as a class-action claim, allowing other former students to join the case.
The school “turned a willful blind eye to the egregious conduct suffered by so many of the school’s students,” they say in the filing.
UNCSA has faced similar accusations in the past.
In 1995, one of the plaintiffs in the most recent suit tried to sue alone.
Christopher Soderlund said Kuch and Gain sexually abused him after he enrolled in 1983, relying on the student’s desire for mentorship to keep him quiet. Their relationship was common knowledge among students and faculty, he said, but nobody told him it was wrong. When he complained to ballet teacher Duncan Noble, in fact, the man said that he too would have liked to have sex with Soderlund, he claimed in his lawsuit.
As news of the 1995 lawsuit spread, North Carolina newspapers uncovered evidence of earlier complaints. The Winston-Salem Journal that year reported that since 1990 both faculty and students had told administrators about sex abuse in the school.
The Greensboro News & Record interviewed a professor who recounted warning then Vice Chancellor William Pruitt that dance teachers across the nation refused to send male students to UNCSA, citing stories that Kuch and Gain were predators.
Kuch and Gain resigned from the school before their scheduled disciplinary hearing, and the UNC system’s Board of Governor’s created a commission to investigate the scale of sexual abuse on campus, pledging to tamp down any impropriety.
The commission asked students and alumni to report faculty who had sexually harassed or had relationships with students, and documented allegations from each campus department. But it never publicly named accused faculty.
“We find no factual basis for the often repeated assertion that there has been a pervasive pattern or history of various types of improper sexual conduct between faculty members and students of the school,” the final report reads. “However, there is evidence that a few employees at various times, especially during the decade of 1980, did engage in conduct which is not tolerable and which must not be allowed to occur in the future.”
The commission recommended that the school issue new policies to address its issues, and leaders agreed. The school now forbids all relationships between teachers and students, and pledges to protect students from retaliation if they report abuse. A spokeswoman for the school declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Along with the school itself, the lawsuit names several former faculty members and officials as defendants: chancellor Jane Elizabeth Milley, music dean Larry Alan Smith, high school program chancellor Peggy Dodson, general studies dean William Tribby, modern dance dean Dianne Markham, drama dean Alan Rust, and Gain. Many of the people who led the school when the plaintiffs were students have retired or died.
Soderlund had said in his first lawsuit that abuse was so common that he didn’t recognize his experiences as traumatic until his mid-20s. At the time, survivors of childhood sexual abuse had only until age 21 to sue abusers or organizations that failed to protect them, so state courts quickly dismissed his lawsuits.
North Carolina lawmakers recently altered that limit. A provision of the 2019 SAFE Child Act created a two-year window, which shuts in December, for people previously considered too old to bring claims in civil court.
That what allowed attorneys Gloria Allred and Lisa Lanier to represent plaintiffs who are now in their 50s.
Lanier’s Raleigh firm has already filed a few cases using the window, none of which has reached the trial stage. Allred has worked on sex discrimination and women’s rights cases across the country, representing women who have accused celebrities including Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein and R. Kelly.
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