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Lawsuit alleges past culture of sexual abuse at University of North Carolina School of the Arts

By Madeline Holcombe and Lauren del Valle, CNN

A new lawsuit alleges faculty at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts perpetrated sexual abuse on minor students over the course of two decades, in the 1970s and 1980s.

Former students who brought the lawsuit allege that during that time a culture of sexual abuse was “widely known” and ignored or condoned by school administrators, their lawsuit states.

“Sexual abuse and exploitation inflicted upon minor students at the school was not only known by students, faculty, staff and administrators at the school, but sadly was known among many of the members of the dance community nationwide,” attorney Gloria Allred said in a news conference Monday.

The litigation names the school, six former administrators and one dance instructor. CNN has reached out to the individuals named as defendants.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday alleges administrators were negligent and that they and the instructor inflicted emotional distress. It also alleges battery by the instructor. The plaintiffs allege UNCSA failed to provide a school free from “continual sexual intimidation, abuse, exploitation and harassment.”

In response, the school issued a statement saying in part: “Simply stated, we are horrified by the allegations of sexual abuse and are appalled by the concept that sexual abuse could happen under the guise of artistic training. We recognize that the words here are only a start — it is our actions that will most clearly communicate the strength of our commitment.”

The specialized school was open to high-performing middle and high school-aged students, and the lawsuit alleges two dance teachers were known on the campus for especially egregious behavior, including grooming and assaulting students as young as 12 — often serving minor students alcohol and having sexual relations with them at “The Farm” where they lived.

The instructors, Richard Kuch and Richard Gain, were so widely known for their predatory behavior that some dance schools would not send their students to the program, the lawsuit says.

“After being moved to the top-level high school class, I was immersed in a world of sexual abuse and such confusing physical pain and psychological darknesst hat I began to experience anxious dread as an everyday normal,” one accuser, who wanted to be identified only by her first name, Elizabeth, said in Monday’s news conference. “As an underaged adolescent, I was subjected to sexual abuse that was normalized by my instructors as preparation for the future professional career I wanted so much.”

“In weekly classes, my body was often violated by teachers who had well-known reputations for being sexual predators.”

Kuch is deceased, but Gain is named as a defendant in the lawsuit. CNN was unable to reach Gain for comment and was unable to determine if he has an attorney.

The lawsuit alleges a wide range of sexual abuse, including teachers telling minor students to have sex in order to be true artists, groping their genitals under the guise of technique correction and forceful penetration.

The abuse was so consistent, many of the alleged victims say they came to accept it as normal and that they believed their teachers were the only people who could help them access a professional dance career.

“The sexualization within the dance classes was so pervasive that we, the students, didn’t question that anything was wrong. Likewise, we didn’t dare question the motives of our mentors that we idolized, and were convinced that they, and only they, could give us the ability to have professional careers,” a plaintiff identified as Christopher said in a video played during in the news conference.

Some of the allegations in the lawsuit were first brought to the school in 1995, according to the school’s statement, and an independent investigation at the time found no widespread sexual misconduct. The report did result in policy changes, but records from the time are too sparse to tell how thorough the investigation was, the statement said.

“The UNCSA community cares deeply about the safety and welfare of our students and alumni,” it said. “The words in this letter feel inadequate to express the extent of our distress.”

It added, “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.”

Allred and local North Carolina attorneys representing the seven plaintiffs filed the litigation under the SAFE Child Act, state legislation that opened an avenue for sexual abuse claims with expired statutes of limitation.

Allred implored witnesses and other potential claimants to come forward quickly as the deadline for filing a lawsuit under the law expires at the end of this year.

The attorneys filed the claims seeking class action status, a move that, if granted, would give potential victims more time to file a claim.

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