Curtis Institute’s Non-Apology and Actionable First Steps

Yes, we’re doing this again.

Last week, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a detailed account of powerhouse violinist Lara St. John’s childhood abuse, assault, and rape at the hands of her Curtis instructor, Jascha Brodsky. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend that you do—the article goes into significant detail about St. John’s initial reporting process and multiple attempts to seek accountability from Curtis. The morning the story broke online, Curtis sent a message to its alumni network, asking them not to talk to the press and encouraging everyone to let the school spin the story. This didn’t go over well.

Curtis later backtracked, issuing a pseudo-apology for the gag order and making vague promises to be better. They also announced that they would be creating an anonymous reporting hotline (theoretically for sexual abuse, though they did not specify what the hotline would focus on or whether alumni, staff, and faculty who have been victimized would be able to utilize it). Nowhere has the Institute apologized to Lara St. John—not for facilitating abuse, not for disbelieving her, not for the joke of an “investigation” they rushed through to sweep the crime under the rug. And, if my guess is correct, they aren’t planning to. These continued missteps communicate to the music community at large that Curtis is more concerned with its reputation than actually working to right the wrongs.

This isn’t the first music school to face a story this explosive, nor is Curtis the first to navigate the reality that they willingly enabled a predator who they kept on faculty for decades thereafter. In fact, I wrote a piece roughly a year ago talking about very real ways to ask for consent for necessary touching in lessons and other artistic environments. In short, we’ve heard this song before. This makes it infinitely frustrating that school after school—Curtis among them—reacts like legions of musicians haven’t already communicated quite clearly the things we need to hear from a school truly interested in accountability and improvement.

The obvious conclusion, then, might be that Curtis and these other institutions aren’t interested in maintaining their integrity. While I’d guess most faculty and staff would argue with that statement, I can definitively say that despite plenty of forewarning and prior opportunities to address the situation, Curtis seems unprepared to truly, fully take accountability. And while it’s easy to shrug it off because Brodsky was the one engaging in acts of sexual violence, as a school, particularly one with so many minors in the program, Curtis has a responsibility and an obligation to place the safety of its students above all else. They have not done so.

Despite the fact that an apology to Lara St. John, delivered personally and then perhaps acknowledged publicly with her permission, should be the very first step of this journey, I’m not convinced we’re going to see one, first and foremost because Curtis’ lawyers are probably telling the entire admin to keep their mouths shut. Yes, there is a connection between an apology and an admission of fault, and yes, that carries more weight in legal matters. St. John may not be suing (that we know of), but if I had to guess, Curtis’ attorneys probably worry that an apology now would set precedent for anyone else who might come forward with an allegation against a faculty member (especially one within the statute of limitations—two years for adults in Pennsylvania, but up to their thirtieth birthday if they were abused as a minor).

This makes the hotline make more sense as a first step, but the potential becomes more insidious. Unless the hotline and its administrators are held to stringent ethical standards, Curtis could use the information they receive to not only understand how many assaults they’ve covered up (which is useful) but use linguistics, phone numbers, and other available data to determine the likelihood of being held accountable in court by someone who’s still able to bring a suit against them (which defeats the purpose of an anonymous hotline). They could cross-reference the allegations they receive with communication records and justify a continued dismissal of a case with a simple “we already looked into this, remember?”

If this hotline is going to have a truly positive effect on the student body and alumni network, Curtis needs to be ultra-transparent as they set it up. We need to know who is administering the hotline (spoiler: it should be a third party consultant with a comprehensive understanding of the ways in which music education can leave students particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse). We need to know how this hotline will interface with Title IX guidelines while maintaining the anonymity they’re promising. We need to know who at Curtis will have access to what amount of data from the hotline and how they’re going to use that information. We need to know that no part of using the hotline will be construed as tacit consent to an NDA or any other agreement that would limit an individual’s ability to speak publicly on the matter should they wish to. We need to know whether or not any of the data received could be mandatory-reported without a victim’s knowledge—this applies to Title IX but also to any reports of sexual abuse of minors, so I’m listing it here for clarity’s sake.

And here’s the thing: if it turns out this abuse was common, if other minors were sexually assaulted by their teachers at Curtis, the school might lose its ability to teach minors, either at the hands of the court or by their own common sense. Many within the classical community would mourn this loss, but let’s take a moment to re-center ourselves. If an institution has created an environment in which a student must sacrifice their bodily autonomy and personal safety to succeed professionally, they should not be teaching students, ESPECIALLY MINORS. There are enough teachers who don’t assault, rape, hit on, and abuse their students (with more joining the workforce every semester!) that we shouldn’t continue to let abusers and institutions coast on a reputation. And while I am a firm believer in rehabilitative justice, that doesn’t mean an apology lets folks go back to their place of prestige and power. So if you need to mourn during any part of this process, that’s okay, but don’t let that blind you to the necessity of these actions.

I haven’t even gotten into the other steps we need to see Curtis take to make things right. I don’t have space to go into tons of detail here, but I’m listing a few that, as an assault survivor and someone who works very regularly with this material, I think would be beneficial:

  • A thorough examination of communications records of past and present department heads and deans, followed by a public acknowledgment of how many similar cases were swept under the rug.
  • A renewed commitment to clarifying with faculty what behaviors are unacceptable. This will probably include further development of materials and/or teacher training courses.
  • An easily accessible, publicly available resource (read: a webpage on Curtis’ site) clearly listing students’ options for reporting, a detailed accounting of the process, and a list of every staff member and Curtis affiliate (healthcare providers, etc.) exempt from Title IX mandated reporting. It will be important to note which conditions apply to minors and which ones apply to adults.
  • An overhaul of any applicable codes of conduct for staff and faculty so it is clear that from this point forward, misconduct and student abuse will not be tolerated.
  • If the internet is correct and Curtis does not offer tenure, make it clear that folks will be fired for abusing students—and then follow through.
  • A prolonged use of available resources and experts to develop a thorough understanding of proper case handling, with accommodations for the niche scenarios that music school allows for.
  • If desired by the student body, hold a public forum to answer questions and address concerns. Actually, hold as many of these as the student body demands. Even if that’s two years’ worth.
  • Develop an internal standard for investigations that extends beyond “we’ll talk to two people and call it good.”
  • Publicly commit to open communication with affected parties, and follow through. Keep the music community at large updated on progress and development/refinement of policies and resources.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but if Curtis truly wants to prove they’re committed to taking any sort of a high road decades after the fact, these steps and others will begin to indicate a sense of institutional responsibility. The journey doesn’t stop with fancy writing, though; realistically, we’ll need to see a continued attention to this matter from the Institute for years if they want to truly “make this right.” Sexual assault and teacher-student abuse may not have been anybody’s priority in the last millennium, but let’s be clear: from here on out, it is a must.

If Curtis wants to keep its doors open, this lack of oversight can never happen again. ♦

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