Curtis’ Latest Efforts In Damage Control Produce Mixed Results

Earlier this week, we examined how the Curtis Institute has engaged with former student and renowned violin soloist, Lara St. John, in the wake of her accusations she was the victim of sexual assault from a former Curtis violin teacher.

Ultimately, St. John decided to publish a letter she wrote and addressed to Roberto Diaz, Curtis Institute of Music’s President. It included a list of conditions needed before St. John would be willing to speak with Diaz on the telephone.

Those conditions outlined why she was disappointed with how Diaz and the board have handled the situation. Of note were issues with how current investigations are unfolding and the provider hired by the school to operate their sexual abuse hotline.

While not referencing St. John by name, Curtis did issue a public a statement from Diaz on 11/7/2019 that touched on many of her concerns.

To the Curtis Community:

I am writing today to update you about additional steps that the Curtis Institute is taking in response to the troubling news stories that appeared in late July regarding allegations of sexual misconduct on our campus during the 1980s.

As you may recall, in August we announced the establishment of a third-party hotline as an important way to reaffirm Curtis’s commitment to creating “a healthy school culture in which our community members feel safe, supported, and heard when they voice concerns” about misconduct.

In conjunction with the establishment of the hotline, Curtis also retained Gina Maisto Smith and Leslie Gomez to undertake a comprehensive review of all reports of such misconduct past and present at Curtis, as well as to examine the Institute’s policies for ensuring the safety and security of its students in the future. This work has been underway since August, and we will make the results of this review public upon completion of the review process. Ms. Smith and Ms. Gomez are nationally-renowned former child abuse and sex crimes prosecutors who founded the nation’s first practice dedicated to institutional responses to sexual and gender-based harassment, violence, and other forms of abuse, discrimination, or harassment, and they have extensive experience working with music conservatories.

We encourage interested community members to contact Ms. Smith or Ms. Gomez directly at gmsmith@cozen.com or (215) 665-5540, or lgomez@cozen.com or (215) 665-5546, respectively.

I also want to share with you a draft of the Institute’s updated Sexual and Gender-Based Harassment and Interpersonal Violence Policy, which sets forth detailed procedures to guide the reporting of prohibited conduct as well as the disciplinary processes that the school will follow in response to such allegations. The revised policy, available here, is extraordinarily detailed, and we encourage you to review it and provide any feedback to Nicholas Lewis, associate dean of student and academic affairs and the school’s Title IX coordinator. Alternatively, you may visit blog.curtis.edu/policies/draft-policy to provide public comments on the policy draft.

Please feel free to contact Nicholas or me if you have any other questions about today’s update.

I reached out to St. John for her thoughts on the information related to the investigators and she responded with what she defined as cautious optimism.

“I am cautiously optimistic about this step forward,” said St. John. “It seems that Curtis has begun to consider the devastating human cost of its past actions. This certainly promises to be a big change from 2013 when their leadership commissioned a sham report then refused to share it with anyone.

Cozen and the two attorneys who have been retained by the school have an excellent reputation and a lot of experience in uncovering wrongdoing associated the sexual abuse of children and women. I look forward to speaking with them.”

St. John confirmed she has yet to be contacted by either investigator.

Curtis’ statement referenced the abuse hotline in passing and since that was one of the most detailed points in St. John’s list of conditions, I followed up with Patricia K. Johnson, Curtis’ Senior Director of Communications and Marketing, to ask about assertions their provider is not up to the task. In response, she provided a statement of support from the school for the current provider.

In August, Curtis engaged Lighthouse Services, an independent third-party provider, to operate its reporting hotline. Curtis believes that it is crucial that individuals feel safe and comfortable in reporting any incidents of misconduct via the hotline, and values the need for anonymity. Information about the Curtis Anonymous Reporting Hotline procedures may be found here.

[…]

Lighthouse, operator of the reporting hotline, is a respected third-party resource and is used by more than 3,000 organizations, including the Cleveland Orchestra, and non-profit organizations and educational institutions. Given Curtis’s international student population, it was also important that Lighthouse operators are available in over 140 languages, 24 hours a day. Whether reports are provided online or by phone, individuals are encouraged to provide all details and information that could be valuable in evaluating and investigating the incident.

The names and contact information of individuals who make reports anonymously are not shared with Curtis. Callers may continue to be in contact with Lighthouse to update their reports and follow the progress, all without relinquishing anonymity.

To date, Curtis has not heard from anyone with complaints about the Lighthouse hotline, but we are open to making changes if it is necessary to do so. Our goal in establishing this service was to provide a safe, effective, and confidential reporting mechanism for anyone in the Curtis community to report concerns.

When pressed about St. John’s specific assertions, if the school intends to reach out to the hotline operator she suggested, and the methods used to evaluate the effectiveness of the current provider, Ms. Johnson reaffirmed Curtis’ confidence in the current provider and that they executive leadership believe it is the ideal company to provide those services.

To the extent that there are concerns about our use of Lighthouse, we would be happy to hear specifics about those concerns and take appropriate action to ensure that callers are made to feel safe and welcomed in providing information.

Johnson declined to provide any details about how Curtis plans to evaluate the hotline’s effectiveness and confirmed evaluation and oversight is apparently the purview of those using the service. Whether or not anonymity of those individuals will be protected was not mentioned.

A Chorus Of Voices Expressing Concern

While Curtis promotes a lack of complaints about the hotline service, that doesn’t mean users are satisfied.

An article by Peter Dobrin in the 11/7/2019 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer includes first-hand accounts from individuals who have contacted Curtis’ hotline provider to log complaints. While one caller relayed a positive experience, others underscored the very same concerns outlined by St. John in her letter to Diaz.

Moreover, Dobrin’s article validates one of the key elements from St. John’s letter in that the hotline’s telephone operators are inadequately trained in processing claims of sexual abuse.

In fact, operators at the hotline, Lighthouse Services, are not professionally trained in speaking with victims of sexual abuse, says Lighthouse president Andy Bronstein. Rather, they are trained to draw information out of callers that can be of use to its clients, he said.

“We do train our operators in sensitivity,” he said. “We are a whistle-blower hotline provider, not a crisis provider, and there is a difference, and there is a level of neutrality that we actually teach our staff to maintain. A sex-assault victim needs a certain type of consultation, but again, it is not a crisis hotline per se.”

And in what may end up running counter to Curtis’ narrative that their primary concern is the safety of students, Dobrin uncovered that the call center provider favors marketing material that highlights the protection their service provides to executive leadership and employees.

“We help protect your assets, board of directors, management, and employees,” the firm states on its website.

Curtis has yet to publicly acknowledge any of the concerns from callers highlighted in the Inquirer article. The official position is the institution is satisfied with how the hotline service is operating.

For now, some elements of Curtis’ efforts appear to be met with what might be defined best as careful approval from alleged victims, there are key elements related to processing incoming and new complaints that continue to fall short.

This article was updated 11/8/2019, 9:05am CT with additional responses from Curtis.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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