A new lawsuit filed against UNC School of the Arts names 25 former administrators and faculty members accused of participating in sexual abuse or helping cover it up.
The latest move comes on the heels of a lawsuit filed in Forsyth Superior Court in September by seven UNCSA alumni who attended high school on the Winston-Salem campus in the 1980s.
One of the plaintiffs in that lawsuit, Christopher Soderlund, previously filed suit against the school, alleging that two dance instructors, Richard Kuch and Richard Gain, had coerced him into a sexual relationship when he was 16 and then 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 latest lawsuit, filed Monday in Forsyth Superior Court, lists 39 former UNCSA high school students as plaintiffs. That includes the seven UNCSA alumni who originally filed suit in September.
The lawsuit includes as a plaintiff Blair Tindall, author of "Mozart in the Jungle." Tindall wrote in the book that two teachers touched her inappropriately and that two teachers had sex with her when she was a high school oboe student at UNCSA.
One of the defendants is Stephen Shipps, a former violin professor at UNCSA who was accused of sexual misconduct with a student while he taught in Winston-Salem. He eventually left UNCSA and taught at the University of Michigan. Last week, he pleaded guilty to a federal charge of transporting a 16-year-old girl across state lines in 2002 in order to have sex with her.
Lisa Lanier, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, said that news coverage of the first lawsuit against UNCSA resulted in more people alleging sexual abuse and exploitation and more former students coming forward to say they witnessed a culture of abuse and neglect. Gloria Allred, a California attorney famous for representing victims of sexual harassment and sexual abuse, also represents the plaintiffs.
"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 in the news release.
Lanier said that the sexual abuse of the 39 former students took place between 1969 and 2012.
"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," Lanier said.
None of the defendants have formally answered the original lawsuit. Attorneys for the individual defendants sought to have the lawsuit transferred to U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, and the plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed the suit in federal court.
In the wake of that original lawsuit in September, UNCSA chancellor Brian Cole issued a statement saying that the school implemented policies to prevent the kind of "appalling" misconduct alleged to have 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.”
He also said, “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.”
After the 1995 lawsuit, school administrators convened a commission to investigate the allegations of widespread sexual abuse. In November 1995, 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 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.