Investigation: Sexual abuse claims about former Curtis teacher are credible

(Nathaniel Hamilton for NewsWorks

(Nathaniel Hamilton for NewsWorks

A Philadelphia law firm has found that violinist Lara St. John’s claims that she was repeatedly sexually abused while she was a student at the Curtis Institute of Music are credible — and that Curtis “fell short in its institutional response.”

The monthslong investigation, conducted by Cozen O’Connor, was unanimously accepted Tuesday by the Curtis Institute Board of Trustees. It also details approximately two dozen accounts of “inappropriate conduct” at Curtis submitted by former students and others dating back more than a half a century.

“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,” said the board in a statement.

President Roberto Díaz agreed, asserting Tuesday that improving the culture and climate at Curtis has and will remain the school’s “number one priority.”

“We have shown for almost a 100 years that Curtis is an incredible music teaching conservatory, but I think we have also shown with this report that [it has come] at the expense of some really horrible things. We have a lot of catching up to do with these issues to the work that we have done musically,” Díaz said in an interview.

Curtis commissioned Cozen O’Connor to complete an external review of St. John’s claims, as well as other historical allegations of abuse, following a July 2019 article in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

The article details the abuse St. John suffered at the hands of her major instrument teacher, Jascha Brodsky, during the 1985-1986 school year. St. John was 14 at the time.

Brodsky died in 1997.

Cozen’s report, the result of interviews with St. John and more than 30 others, covers much of what is contained in the Inquirer article, including that the sexual abuse escalated over the course of the school year — “beginning with kissing and touching her breasts and genitals and culminating in rape.” St. John said when she rebuffed Brodsky, he threatened to have her and her older brother, also a student at Curtis, expelled.

St. John reported the abuse in 1986, at the start of her second year at Curtis, to then-Dean Robert Fitzpatrick, but Fitzpatrick was “dismissive” and “failed to take steps to protect her,” according to the investigation.

“What do you want me to do about it?” St. John recalled Fitzpatrick saying during a meeting that fall.

St. John also spoke up about the abuse — and the institutional response to her allegations — in 2013 and 2019.

“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 and/or had taken meaningful steps in response to her outreach,” the Cozen report concludes.

The investigation also draws broader conclusions about campus life at Curtis based on direct and indirect accounts received by Cozen, as well as information contained in a social media post from a female former student.

Many of the claims were submitted to the law firm anonymously, and the law firm did not reach determinations “as to the relative merits or credibility of individual accounts of abuse.”

“The reports included varying levels of detail and ability to corroborate the account, especially where the report was anonymous,” according to the report.

Among the findings: The power dynamic between master teachers and their students contributed in part to the reluctance among some students to report issues — for fear of retaliation.

The investigation also concludes that historically Curtis had “insufficient policies, resources, training, or education about sexual or gender-based harrassment or violence, sexual abuse, professional boundaries and consent.” And that historically there were “barriers” that “inhibited” reporting by students who experienced inappropriate conduct, including sexual abuse.

In its statement regarding the investigation, the Curtis board details a series of actions it hopes will complement and strengthen the steps the institute has already taken in response to St. John’s abuse claims and broader concerns about the institution’s culture and climate.

In partnership with the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, Curtis will establish a trauma fund to provide free counseling for any member of the school’s community who has experienced sexual abuse.

Curtis also plans to 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.”

The school is currently establishing the Curtis Coordination, Assessment, Response and Education Team to help students with circumstances that could disrupt their “psychological well-being within the campus community.” The institute is also participating in the Mental Health First Aid Trainer Initiative, which teaches participants how to help someone who is developing mental health problems or experiencing a mental health crisis.

Díaz said Tuesday that Curtis has reached out to St. John with hopes of having her become an active participant in the school’s community “if she would like.”

“I know this is a very difficult and emotional time for her. It’s hard for the school also. But I think it’s the beginning of a process that can heal our community,” he said.

Disclosure: The Curtis Institute of Music supports WHYY.

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