Women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred has filed a class-action lawsuit against the University of North Carolina School for the Arts, alleging that administrators condoned a culture of sexual abuse of children in the 1970s and 1980s.
Ms. Allred shared a copy of the lawsuit Thursday with The Washington Times, but asked that the last names of the plaintiffs not be reported. She filed the lawsuit on behalf of seven former students.
The document alleges that the public arts conservatory, which grants high school, undergraduate and graduate degrees, violated North Carolina’s constitution by doing nothing about the incidents for at least two decades, even though administrators “knew or should have known of the dangerous culture that permeated the institution and that permitted and condoned the sexual abuse and exploitation of students attending the school.”
“The complaint alleges that students were groped, fondled and touched in a sexual manner and that students were constantly subjected to grossly sexual comments,” Ms. Allred said in a statement.
She made her remarks at a virtual press conference Monday with the alleged victims, four women and three men who offered statements of their own.
Mary, who graduated from high school at the institution in 1988, said the sexual abuse began when she was 12.
“A sense of powerlessness was established in me as a result of the sexual abuse, during those childhood years, that made me feel like less of a person than everyone else,” she said.
In their statements, the former students described depression and suicide attempts among the symptoms of their alleged abuse.
Christopher, who graduated from high school at the institution in 1986, said he blamed himself for not having a normal life after a male dance teacher began grooming him for sexual abuse at the age of 16 by telling him he needed to “get laid” to become a real artist.
“So when teachers would hit us, or fondle us, or grope us, or insert fingers in our private parts during class, we wrongly believed these were legitimate tactile corrections,” he said.
The lawsuit names as defendants the University of North Carolina School for the Arts and seven former teachers and administrators: Jane Elizabeth Milley, Larry Alan Smith, Peggy Dodson, William Tribby, Dianne Markham, Alan Rust and Richard Gain.
In a four-page statement released Monday, current arts school Chancellor Brian Cole said officials had learned about some of the allegations in 1995, prompting them to form an independent citizens’ commission and in 1996 to adopt the UNC Board of Governors Policy for Improper Relationships.
“The allegations in the complaint are deeply disturbing and run counter to UNCSA’s institutional values. While they have been raised in the context of a lawsuit against UNCSA, it is our intent to respond to this litigation in a manner consistent with our institutional values — to listen to the 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 many have described; and to take steps to acknowledge and address any historical sexual misconduct with candor and compassion,” Mr. Cole’s statement reads, in part.
Mr. Cole noted that the arts school had changed significantly since the time of the alleged incidents.
The first public arts conservatory in the U.S., the University of North Carolina School for the Arts was established in 1963 by then-Gov. Terry Sanford, a Democrat who later served in the U.S. Senate.
Originally known as the North Carolina School for the Arts, the Winston-Salem school became part of the UNC system during consolidation in the early 1970s and changed its name in 2008 as part of a bid to raise its profile by advertising its affiliation with the university.
Working as co-counsel with Greensboro attorney Lisa Lanier, Ms. Allred filed the lawsuit with North Carolina’s Industrial Commission on Sept. 29. It asks the Forsyth County Superior Court for a jury trial to determine and award punitive damages.
She said the lawsuit became possible due to the Safe Child Act, which North Carolina passed in 2019 to suspend the statute of limitations on child sex abuse cases until December 2021.
Ms. Allred, 80, has been well-known since the 1970s for taking on high-profile cases involving sexual discrimination and abuse.