Investigative Report 2020

Statement from the Curtis Institute Board of Trustees

September 22, 2020

The board of trustees of the Curtis Institute of Music today received, reviewed, and unanimously accepted the findings of the investigative report concerning allegations of abuse past and present, most notably including the report of sexual abuse raised by Curtis alumna Lara St. John.

The report was prepared by attorneys Gina Maisto Smith and Leslie Gomez, nationally-renowned former child abuse and sex crimes prosecutors who founded the nation’s first practice dedicated to improving institutional responses to sexual and gender-based harassment, violence, and other forms of abuse, discrimination, or harassment. It includes information from interviews with approximately 30 individuals, including Curtis alumni, former and current Curtis faculty members, board members, administrators, employees, and others. As promised by Curtis President and CEO Roberto Díaz, the report is made public today as written, with no edits or revisions made by the board or anyone else at Curtis.

Although it acknowledges that Curtis has many safeguards currently in place that are designed to protect its students, the report raises troubling questions about the institution’s past in keeping students safe from harm.

It includes a credible account from Ms. St. John detailing horrifying accounts of rape and repeated sexual abuse that she suffered at the hands of her major instrument teacher, Jascha Brodsky, during the 1985–86 school year when Ms. St. John was 14 years old. The report also details approximately two dozen accounts of inappropriate conduct at Curtis received from former students and others dating back more than half a century. Many of these accounts sounded a recurrent theme: a reluctance to report abuse driven by the perception that “students remained at Curtis at the discretion of their major instrument teacher,” (see page 3 of the report) which created an unhealthy climate and had a chilling effect on reporting misconduct because of the “real threat that one could be dismissed for any reason at any time” (see page 32 of the report).

Most of these accounts focus on events and practices that occurred more than 20 years ago, and over the last decade Curtis has instituted a range of policies and procedures to protect students from abuse and sexual misconduct. That does not diminish the impact of these incidents on the former students and alumni who participated in this review and candidly shared their experiences. We offer our profound apologies to these former students and alumni and our gratitude for their willingness to help us better understand our past. In acknowledging and owning the past, the board today also reaffirms the school’s commitment to the health and safety of Curtis students as essential elements in the creation of a safe and welcoming campus environment for all members of the Curtis community.

The board recognizes and profoundly regrets the incalculable physical and emotional toll that Ms. St. John suffered as a result of her Curtis experience. As the report makes clear, at multiple points along the road of her harrowing journey, Ms. St. John provided opportunities for Curtis and its leaders to respond meaningfully and provide her with support and a chance to aid in her healing. But in each instance the school fell short in its attempts to respond to her concerns and instead reinforced the perception that it did not care about what happened to her.

Earlier today, Roberto Díaz and Board Chair Deborah M. Fretz expressed their sincere apologies on behalf of Curtis to Ms. St. John for the way in which she was treated by the school and those leaders in whom she confided, and specifically for failing to provide any opportunity to help her cope with and recover from the abuse inflicted upon her or the school’s continued dismissal of her concerns.

We were wrong, and we express publicly our sincere apology to Lara St. John for the way she was treated by Curtis for the past 34 years. We failed to provide her with a safe learning environment, failed to carefully investigate her claims, failed to communicate our grave disappointment in how she was treated by Curtis, and repeatedly failed to communicate the steps that were taken to prevent such abuse from occurring in the future.

None of this should have happened to Ms. St. John, and we are profoundly sorry that it did. We are in awe of her courage and spirit, which led to a long-overdue public reckoning about the pain and suffering that she and others endured over a number of decades. For this reckoning, we owe Ms. St. John a debt of thanks, along with the public recognition that as a direct result of her coming forward, Curtis today is far better equipped to protect students against sexual abuse or misconduct.

We also take this opportunity to publicly thank reporters Tricia Nadolny and Peter Dobrin and the Philadelphia Inquirer for shining a light on Ms. St. John’s account and prompting the comprehensive inquiry that has led Curtis to implement a wide range of new policies and procedures as part of the school’s continuing commitment to the safety and welfare of its students.

Apologies alone are not enough, however, and in accepting the findings of the report, the board and the administration, under President Díaz’s leadership, also announce the following steps that have been or will be implemented going forward:

  • Trauma Fund: Working with the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, Curtis will establish a trauma fund to provide free counseling for any member of the Curtis community who has experienced sexual abuse.
  • RAINN Hotline: In addition to its ongoing agreements with Lighthouse Services, Maxient, and SafeColleges offering confidential reporting of misconduct and student safety issues, Curtis will deepen its relationship with RAINN and its local affiliate, Women Organized Against Rape (WOAR), to establish an additional hotline to enable Curtis students and employees to confidentially report sexual abuse at any time.
  • Young Alumni Fund: In recognition of the extraordinary courage demonstrated by Lara St. John, Curtis will expand an existing funding program dedicated to supporting young alumni who may be experiencing obstacles of any kind in the pursuit of their musical careers.
  • Title IX Coordinator: As part of its recently-enacted reorganization, Curtis has already begun its search for a dedicated, full-time Title IX coordinator with experience planning, designing, developing, and evaluating human resource-related initiatives that foster a community environment free from discrimination, harassment, and violence. The Title IX coordinator will have an open and confidential reporting line to the board of trustees.
  • Community Culture: Curtis’s Constituent Well-Being Group, established as part of Curtis’s recent reorganization, will address issues of power dynamics between teachers and students and will engage experts to train the school’s staff and faculty on these issues. These mandatory trainings, which are specifically about the unique power differentials that exist at institutions like Curtis, will supplement the existing trainings Curtis staff and faculty receive on Title IX, mandatory reporting, trauma-informed counseling, and mental health first aid, among others.Also, as part of the recent reorganization, Curtis has created a “Musician Life Cycle Team” to support and engage applicants, students, and alumni and is appointing a new senior associate dean of student affairs to oversee student support functions and a new senior director for community, equity, and belonging to work across departments to advance equity and promote inclusion. Curtis has also launched an Ombuds Office, which serves as a neutral and accessible point of contact for members of Curtis community to explore matters of concern.Power imbalances are found at any school, but they can be mitigated as Curtis has sought to do by increasing the number of resources available to its students. In addition to a team of dedicated student services specialists, there are now more teachers at Curtis than at any point in its history. For the last 15 years, Curtis increased the number of faculty to provide more diverse experiences, viewpoints, and choices for students. Also, students are no longer “on probation” for their entire Curtis educational experience. As the report notes, this small but significant change to the Student Code of Conduct took place before the start of the current school year, although it never should have been an institutional policy in the first place.
  • Stronger Policies: In August this year, Curtis published a revised Sexual and Gender-Based Harassment and Interpersonal Violence Policy, which applies to harassment based on sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression; sexual assault, sexual exploitation, stalking, dating violence, domestic violence, and retaliation. It provides all community members information about available resources and reporting options, encourages prompt reporting of abuse, and prohibits retaliation against anyone who makes a report. Under that policy, all Curtis employees are required to report any information about prohibited conduct to the Title IX Coordinator.
  • Annual Outcomes Report: In recognition of our continuing commitment to keep students safe and the sustained attention this commitment requires, Curtis will also release an “Annual Outcomes Report” to the public which will anonymize and summarize information on accounts of sexual misconduct that have been brought to the attention of Curtis officials, as well as the status and/or outcomes of those accounts. The report will include campus and off-campus incidents that involve members of the Curtis community. The purpose of reporting these statistics is to increase awareness, promote transparency, and create productive dialogue to ensure a campus culture where all members are equally valued.

Trigger warning: The report contains first-hand accounts of abuse, including sexual violence.

We recognize that there may be other individuals whose experiences are not captured in this report and understand that its release may prompt other Curtis students or alumni to come forward to share their accounts. We welcome the opportunity to hear the experiences of impacted community members, either directly or through Cozen O’Connor’s reporting website, which remains open for those who may wish to share information anonymously. Understanding the experiences of our students and alumni is critical to informing our current and ongoing efforts.

With our actions today we demonstrate Curtis’s ongoing commitment to protecting the health and safety of all who inhabit our campus, but most particularly the gifted young musicians who comprise our student body. This has been a painful journey for all involved, but most especially for Lara St. John and all other students who experienced abuse at Curtis. We sincerely regret the pain that they have endured, and we are determined to learn from it in creating a safe and welcoming campus experience for all those we are privileged to serve.