The University of North Carolina’s School of the Arts is facing multiple abuse allegations in a lawsuit brought by renowned sexual harassment attorney Gloria Allred and Lanier Law Group.
UNCSA has long been a revered place to study dance, producing many stars like Camille A. Brown and Gillian Murphy. Yet the school’s decades-old reputation for solid training has been marred in the past by rumors and accusations of sexual and emotional abuse. The school has never had to defend itself against these claims in court, until now.
In 2019, North Carolina passed The Sexual Assault Fast Reporting and Enforcement Act (SAFE Child Act), giving survivors of abuse that occurred past the statute of limitations a legal window to sue. This is a temporary rule that expired on December 31, 2021.
Many survivors who have come forward say the culture at UNCSA at the time of the abuse deterred them from speaking out. But the SAFE Child Act made possible an initial lawsuit by seven plaintiffs filed in September 2021. In a lawsuit filed on December 29, 2021 – just before the deadline – several former students joined the lawsuit, bringing the total to 56. Thirty defendants formerly from the faculty and administration are named in the lawsuit, which alleges decades of abuse perpetrated by teachers and blatantly ignored by administrators of all arts disciplines at the school.
One of the plaintiffs is Christopher Soderlund, who originally filed a lawsuit against the school in 1995, alleging sexual abuse by modern dance teachers Richard Kuch (now deceased) and Richard Gain in the early 1980s. his claim was denied due to the statute of limitations.
At the time, Soderlund’s 1995 lawsuit prompted public complaints from faculty member Gyula Pandi, who said he had previously alerted the school’s vice-chancellor that Kuch and Gain’s reputation for sexually abusing underage students was so widespread that he could not recruit male dancers to the school. . Ironically, Pandi is named in the current lawsuit by an unnamed former student of hers, who alleges that Pandi repeatedly sexually assaulted her from 1969 to 1971, starting when she was 15.
The majority of allegations in the dance department date from the 1970s, 80s and 90s and are against Kuch and Gain: male students accuse them of sexual assault, and female and male students accuse them of inappropriate sexual touching during class . Throughout the complaint, the former students allege that Kuch and Gain regularly bullied, manipulated and humiliated underage students of all genders in a sexual manner. Teachers were openly called across campus “Crotch and Groin,” and were known to invite students into their homes (they lived together), dubbed “The Farm” or “The F*** Farm,” bending them. with alcohol and had sex with them.
The lawsuit contains several complaints against ballet faculty (and former New York City Ballet star) Melissa Hayden and her husband, Don Coleman, who are both deceased. Former students allege that Hayden’s conduct in class was cruel and verbally and physically abusive, and that she brought students to her home, where Coleman coerced them into having sex with each other and with him. Duncan Noble, a former dancer with the American Ballet Theater and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, is also named as an alleged sexual predator targeting underage students.
Not all allegations date from the previous century. Former UNCSA student Amanda Irwin claims that in 2008 ballet teacher Nigel Burley sexually assaulted her in his office. Irwin says she reported the incident to another instructor, who said “we know all about it and there’s nothing we can do.” When Irwin reported it to the administration, Burley continued teaching at UNCSA for six months before leaving the school. Ethan Stiefel, who was dean of dance at the time, is named in the suit as someone who shied away from his responsibility to provide a safe environment for students.
In a statement, UNCSA said, “The allegations contained in the complaint are deeply troubling and run counter to UNCSA’s institutional values. Although they were raised in the context of a lawsuit against UNCSA, we intend to respond to this litigation in a manner consistent with our institutional values: to listen to accounts with openness; to appreciate the courage it took for our former students and alumni to share their experiences, especially given the long-term impacts of trauma that many have described; and to take steps to acknowledge and address any historical sexual misconduct with candor and compassion.