The 7/25/2019 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer published an investigative article by Tricia L. Nadolny and Peter Dobrin that reports on alleged sexual assault at the Curtis Institute against a minor by a renowned violin teacher. To make matters worse, the victim alleges the school’s leadership actively buried her allegations then belittled the accuser. The Inquirer sums it up in one of the most concise and descriptive headlines I’ve seen on a #MeToo topic: Abused, then mocked.
In response to the Inquirer’s investigation and decision to publish the article, Curtis made an already bad situation worse by embracing the very behavior they were accused of when the allegations were originally reported in 1986: control the narrative at all costs by disregarding the accuser then bury it.
There are no shortages of topics worth discussion within the allegations from renowned violin soloist, Lara St. John. The entire ordeal will hopefully become a case study documenting abuse within higher education, but it is also a reminder of how much work remains to bridge the chasm between stated policies designed to protect students from sexual abuse and practical application.
Toxic Damage Control
While there is no shortage on expert advice on how to go about damage control in the wake of sexual abuse/impropriety allegations, one of the more common tenets among mainstream practitioners is to actively empathize.
This is where Curtis went awry. Shortly after the article went live, they sent a mass email to Alumni asking them to “refrain from discussing the matter publicly, online, or on social media” and to direct any media inquiries to the school’s Senior Director of Communications and Marketing.
You can read the complete email here.
While the message including a statement about Curtis’ “[commitment] to the safety, security, and well-being of [their] students, staff, faculty, and audiences” there was no ask for anyone with information on St. John’s allegations or any other issue of sexual impropriety to reach out to the university or law enforcement with information.
The message was clear: let us tell you we care but right now, help us make this go away.
If you’re curious about what constitutes an empathetic damage control response, that’s not it.
Kudos to The Inquirer for following up on Curtis’ Alumni message so quickly. On the same day the original article was published, they published a follow-up by the same reporting team that included a copy of the email message, responses from recipients, and statements from Curtis spokespersons.
One Alumna succinctly summed make the connection between lack of projecting a lack of commitment:
“They’re not talking about Lara St. John,” she said. “They’re talking about the people being accused.”
In response, Curtis representatives attempted to dig up.
Asked about the email Thursday, [Curtis’ Senior Director of Communications and Marketing Patricia Johnson] said administrators asked the recipients to not comment about the article because they were “concerned about the possible effects of conjecture and speculation on the story, and those involved.”
The Curtis email did not ask for anyone to step forward with information, but Johnson later said its purpose was “that I’d hope if anyone had information about this story, that they would share it with us first so we could look into or address it as needed.”
A third Inquirer article, published in the 7/26/2019 edition, written by Peter Dobrin reports on Curtis’ slow, and sometimes counterintuitive, attempts at ongoing PR course correction.
Also late Thursday night on its Facebook and Twitter accounts, the school did not apologize for its call for silence but said it regretted that its first communication struck some as insensitive.
“At Curtis, we take issues of abuse very seriously, and we deeply sympathize with all victims of assault. We sincerely regret not properly conveying today the weight of our commitment to these values.”
For now, it would be understandable if one thought Curtis was properly conveying their commitment to protecting their reputation first, safeguarding students and investigating claims of impropriety, second.
Moving forward, Curtis’ actions and transparency will define public perception. Until then, supporters and those on the outside looking in will need to keep an eye on developments and what Curtis decides to make public.
I did reach out to Curtis’ Senior Director of Communications and Marketing on 7/26/19 with questions on those issues and more but have yet to receive a reply.