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Credible, ‘horrifying’ sexual-abuse accounts at Curtis Institute of Music, law firm finds

The report detailed accounts of sexual assault from acclaimed violinist Lara St. John as well as separate claims of abuse by about two dozen other Curtis students over decades.

Lara St. John on the balcony of her apartment in New York City in July 21 2019.
Lara St. John on the balcony of her apartment in New York City in July 21 2019.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

A months-long investigation by the law firm Cozen O’Connor into “horrifying accounts of rape and repeated sexual abuse” from violinist Lara St. John while she was a student at the Curtis Institute of Music has found her claims to be credible.

A report by the firm detailing her experience, as well as separate claims of abuse by about two dozen other students over a period of decades, was unanimously accepted Tuesday by the Curtis board.

» READ MORE: Acclaimed violinist Lara St. John says she was abused, silenced as a student at Philadelphia's elite Curtis Institute

“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,” the board said in a statement Tuesday.

The report was commissioned by Curtis after a July 2019 Inquirer investigation detailed St. John’s claim of rape and sexual abuse by violin professor Jascha Brodsky and repeated instances in which school leaders ignored her accounts, including in 1986, 2013, and 2019. Curtis' initial response to the Inquirer report last year was to ask alumni to refrain from discussing it publicly, a move that enraged many of the school’s students and alumni, as well as others.

Cozen’s report acknowledged a powerful dynamic at play that “created an unhealthy climate and had a chilling effect on reporting misconduct”: Since students remain at the school at the discretion of their main instrumental teacher, they do not report abuse because of the “real threat that one could be dismissed for any reason at any time.”

St. John said Tuesday night that she was pleased with the findings of the report, “but it took a lot of life-force to make this happen. Not only that, but many newspaper articles and outraged alumni. It took way more than it should have and it shouldn’t have taken 35 years. That said, I am glad at last they have admitted their wrongdoing.”

Brodsky died in 1997.

Curtis' board statement said the school “recognizes and profoundly regrets the incalculable physical and emotional toll that Ms. St. John suffered. … 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."

Curtis president Roberto Díaz and board chair Deborah M. Fretz sent a letter of apology to St. John. Asked whether the report would result in any changes in administrative personnel, Fretz said: “We will deal with next steps at later board meetings.”

Said Diaz: “We wrote to Lara, and I look forward, when she is ready, to reconnecting with her and finding a way forward so she can have, if she would like it, a meaningful relationship with the school. I think that would be a wonderful outcome for her and for us.”

Curtis has published the 54-page report [Warning: describes sexual violence] on its website, and its board statement took pains to say that the report was released “as written, with no edits or revisions made by the board or anyone else at Curtis.”

The school details changes it has made and will make in reporting and dealing with sexual misconduct.

» READ MORE: Curtis Institute of Music response to sexual misconduct claim: Don’t talk about it

The report by lawyers Gina Maisto Smith and Leslie Gomez covers much of the same ground as The Inquirer’s investigation into the events of the 1985-86 school year, when St. John was a 14-year-old student of Brodsky. St. John said that the abuse began with kissing and touching of her breasts and genitals, and culminating in rape. When she rebuffed his advances, Brodsky threatened to have her and her brother, also a Curtis student, expelled from the school.

She reported the abuse to Curtis on multiple occasions between 1986 and 2019, but on each occasion, school leaders ignored her complaints.

The firm interviewed more than 30 people and “found that St. John provided a credible account of sexual abuse by Brodsky.”

St. John reported the abuse, though not the rape, with Curtis dean Robert Fitzpatrick and director Gary Graffman, and their only action was to move St. John to the studio of another teacher.

Fitzpatrick told the law firm that “in hindsight, his response was inadequate and he should have done more. Graffman also acknowledged the disclosure, which he recalled involved inappropriate touching, but said that it was a different era and, had he known the conduct involved rape, he would have responded differently.”

» READ MORE: Curtis Institute will review sexual-assault policies after Inquirer story reports abuse

St. John continued over a period of decades to bring the abuse to the attention of the school. “On each of those occasions, Curtis missed opportunities either to respond meaningfully to St. John or to demonstrate to St. John that it in fact took her reports seriously," the report says.

Following The Inquirer’s investigation, Cozen O’Connor sought and received “substantive information” about claimed abuse at Curtis from more than two dozen former students, alumni, and others. They covered decades, from the 1960s to the 2010s, and alleged inappropriate behavior on the part of various faculty and staff members.

Cozen O’Connor interviewed one alumna, who attended Curtis from 2007 to 2010, who reported that her teacher was “verbally and emotionally abusive to her and others. She said the teacher over-emphasized the importance of sexuality in musical performances as part of his pedagogy, and created a ‘toxic environment’ and ‘culture of sexualization’ in his department. She described her experience at Curtis as ‘horrible’ and said the environment was ‘harmful’ and significantly worse than at two other institutions where she studied. This teacher is no longer employed at Curtis.”

Some of the claims involved emotional or psychological abuse, and some were anonymous or reported by a third party.

“Consistent with the scope of our review, we did not reach a determination as to the relative merits or credibility of individual accounts of abuse,” the lawyers stated. “The reports included varying levels of detail and ability to corroborate the account, especially where the report was anonymous.”

However: “What emerged was a powerful picture about the power dynamics in the conservatory setting and its impacts on student well-being and educational opportunities.”

Curtis said Tuesday that it has and will be taking steps to ensure the welfare of its students. Among them: establishing a “Trauma Fund” to provide students with access to counseling services with the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (a suggestion St. John had made); engaging an additional outside hotline for students and employees to report sexual abuse; the establishment of a Young Alumni Fund “in recognition of the extraordinary courage demonstrated by Lara St. John” to support “young alumni who may be experiencing obstacles of any kind in the pursuit of their musical careers”; and the hiring of a Title IX coordinator.

Curtis’ board statement said that “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.”

The Curtis board also thanked “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.”