Arts school settles sexual abuse lawsuit for $12.5 million

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Arts school settles sexual abuse lawsuit for $12.5 million
Former students described a stunning array of abuse at the school in their 236-page complaint, which was initially filed in late 2021.

by Matt Stevens

NEW YORK, NY.- The prestigious University of North Carolina School of the Arts announced Friday that it had settled a lawsuit brought by dozens of alumni who described widespread sexual and emotional abuse that they said took place on and off campus, and that spanned decades.

Lawyers said the 65 former students who brought the claims will be paid a total of $12.5 million over four years, according to a statement released by the arts school. The University of North Carolina System will pay $10 million and the school itself will pay $2.5 million, the statement said.

“When they were children and early teens, so many of them went to this school with the potential to do world-class things, whether it was the violin, or to dance or to sing,” Bobby Jenkins, a lawyer for the claimants, said in an interview Friday. “In many cases, that potential was derailed by what happened to them.”

Former students described a stunning array of abuse at the school in their 236-page complaint, which was initially filed in late 2021. In the court papers, they said that, beginning in the late 1960s, dozens of teachers and administrators — including some of the most respected figures in the dance and performing arts world — participated in, or allowed, their sexual, physical and emotional abuse, conditions that persisted for the next 40 years.

The abuse included assaults in classrooms, private homes off campus, a motel room off a highway, and a tour bus rumbling through Italy, according to the lawsuit. The court papers described student complaints of being raped, groped and fondled through their leotards. At alcohol-fueled dance parties, the lawsuit said, students as young as 14 were told to completely disrobe and perform ballet moves.

Chris Alloways-Ramsey, 56, who attended the school from 1984 to 1986 and was one of the claimants, described a swirl of mixed emotions in an interview Friday. He said he felt relief that the ordeal had ended and gratitude toward the lawyers who had worked tirelessly to defend him and others.

But Alloways-Ramsey, who is now the Orlando Ballet’s director of education, also said he felt renewed anger at the school, which he said had “got off very easily.” The size of the settlement payment was considerably smaller than what the claimants had sought, he said.

“Figuring out why I feel so confused right now is hard,” he said. “I’m grateful for what we have, of course. I’m grateful that the school is recognizing it."

The chancellor of the School of the Arts, Brian Cole, said in a statement that it had been a dark time for the school as it came to terms with the accounts of sexual abuse.

“I am personally devastated that anyone on this campus would have experienced abuse,” he said, “and commit to doing all that we can to continually bolster an environment of safety and trust.”

When the school opened in the 1960s as the North Carolina School of the Arts, in a quiet neighborhood just outside downtown Winston-Salem, it was the nation’s first public arts conservatory. According to court papers, the school, which operates as a residential high school and college, recruited students as young as 12 to study ballet, modern dance, music and other disciplines. It became part of the University of North Carolina system in 1972.

Some of the allegations of abuse emerged publicly in a 1995 lawsuit that was eventually dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired. At that time, the UNC Board of Governors formed an independent commission to review the allegations. When the new lawsuit was filed against the school in 2021, Cole wrote in a letter to the campus community that a report by that commission had found “no widespread sexual misconduct.”

The new lawsuit was filed under the terms of a look-back law in North Carolina that opened a window for adults who said they were victims of child sexual abuse to sue individuals and institutions they held responsible, even if the statute of limitations on their claims had expired.

The law is facing legal challenges, and Lisa Lanier, another lawyer for the claimants, said that uncertainty made the settlement a particularly satisfying outcome for her clients. Similar cases her firm has filed have been held up in court. The lawyers, Lanier said, would soon begin working with a professional allocator to divide the funds among the victims.

Lanier and Jenkins lauded the courage of the former students who came forward to report the abuse. And they also praised the university for taking responsibility for what happened and seeking to make amends.

But Alloways-Ramsey was more circumspect. “No matter what the sum is,” he said, “it’s not going to change what happened.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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