5 things we learned from new sex abuse lawsuit against UNC School of the Arts

·4 min read

A few months after North Carolina’s premier arts school faced new claims that it mishandled sex abuse in the 1980s, dozens of alumni have added their voices to a lawsuit calling for accountability.

In a new complaint filed Monday, nearly 40 former students say they were sexually abused while enrolled at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.

Here’s some of what the new filing reveals.

What’s new?

The new lawsuit replaces one that seven people who were students in the 1980s filed earlier this year. It added 32 new plaintiffs, bringing a total of 39 accusers.

The earliest complaint comes from a dance student who enrolled in 1969, four years after the school opened its doors to high school and college students. The most recent came from a student who left the drama program in 2012.

Both said that teachers took advantage of their naivety and dependence on staff to put students into sexual situations.The lawsuit names 24 defendants, who plaintiffs say either abused students directly or failed to protect them from predators.

Why a new lawsuit?

The new lawsuit piles up the allegations, and emphasizes stories in which the school appeared to mishandle abuse claims. Plaintiffs outline teachers refusing to confront their colleagues, counselors focusing on student accountability, and school leaders failing to oust accused predators.

It also highlights more modern accusations, including a couple that occurred after a 1995 inquiry on campus that pledged to stamp out any systemic abuse.

UNCSA, the UNC system, and federal Title IX law have all shifted their standards for inappropriate staff behavior dramatically over the school’s lifetime, so an issue that might not have opened them to liability in the 1960s could be considered more serious in recent years.

Who is accused?

In addition to asking for damages from the school, the plaintiffs named several people as defendants who they said either abused students or failed to protect them from colleagues.

Among the most dramatic new accusations are these:

  • Four alumni said that famed ballerina Melissa Hayden invited students to her home in the 1990s, where her husband Don Coleman gave dancers alcohol and had them strip naked.

  • One student, who remained at the school until 2012, said drama professor Kelly Maxner made students kiss each other and dance sexually as part of their lessons, and once speculated in front of the class that she’d someday be raped.

  • One woman said that violinist Stephen Shipps had sex with her after she enrolled as his student in 1988 and sent her across state lines so that a fellow musician could rape her. He very recently agreed to plead guilty to trafficking a minor for sex in the years since he left UNCSA.

1995 investigation

One of the current plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in 1995 accusing two dance teachers of sexually abusing him and several other staff members of failing to prevent it. Courts dismissed his lawsuit because the statute of limitations -- which at the time ended when accusers turned 21 -- had expired.

The teachers, Richard Kuch and Richard Gain, left their posts before the disciplinary hearing that could’ve led to their firing.

But the community was already in uproar, and the UNC Board of Trustees responded by commissioning an inquiry into what the lawsuit had described as endemic acceptance of abuse at the school.

The commission asked anyone who knew of abuse to call a hotline. Over 50 people did so to describe everything from rumors to firsthand accounts of staff preying on students. Commission members published a 16-page document that didn’t outline specific allegations, but noted that most of the very few teachers who’d been accused no longer worked at the school.

But a document obtained by the Charlotte Observer and The News & Observer contradicted that. The papers found in late system president C.D. Spangler’s archives listed 24 accused predators, half of whom were still working at the school by 1995.

Of the 24 listed in that document, 11 are accused in the current lawsuit.

What’s next

The lawyers who filed the suit, including famed sexual harassment attorney Gloria Allred, say they’re still accepting more plaintiffs.

But time is running out for new plaintiffs to join suit. After Dec. 31, the two-year window in which child sex abuse survivors of any age can sue in North Carolina will close. People trying to sue after that will generally have to do so by age 28.

While lawyers representing plaintiffs are no longer seeking class action certification against individuals, attorney Bobby Jenkins said they plan to continue seeking that certification against the school.

While it could take several months for the case to reach trial, settlement is an option for those involved.

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