UNC System, arts school to pay alums $12.5M for sex abuse claims. You can’t know why.

University of North Carolina leaders refuse to release details on why the state agreed to pay millions to former students over allegations of decades-long sexual abuse by faculty at the state’s most prestigious arts campus.

Actions by state lawmakers last year ensured they’ll never have to.

In May, the UNC System and the UNC School of the Arts agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by dozens of alumni accusing administrators of turning “a willful blind eye” to teachers abusing and exploiting students from the 1960s to the 2010s. The institutions will pay $12.5 million to settle with about 65 former students over the next four years.

“Resolving the disputes on the terms specific here avoids protracted litigation and achieves a balanced resolution that honors claimants and, in some cases, their memory,” the agreement, obtained by The News & Observer through a public records request, says.

What neither the university system nor the school are disclosing, however, is why they reached that conclusion.

By state law, the state attorney general’s office must review any proposed settlement of more than $75,000 and detail why such an amount would be justified. The analyses can reveal key insights into how the state thinks it might fare if a case goes to civil court — and which facts and arguments would be most convincing to a jury.

Take, for example, the 2015 memo justifying a $2.5 million settlement for the family of an inmate who died of thirst after weeks in solitary confinement in a western North Carolina prison. The document showed the state’s lawyers believed the “repeated, widespread and inflammatory failures on the part of various prison staff” made litigation a “worst-case scenario,” WRAL News reported.

Nazneen Ahmed, a spokesperson for Attorney General Josh Stein, acknowledged such a memo exists for the UNCSA settlement. But her office can’t share those records because they’re protected by attorney-client privilege, she said.

North Carolina public records law exempts communication between public agencies and their lawyers, but it makes clear that those agencies can make such correspondence public.

Both the UNC System and the UNC School of the Arts refused to release the attorney general memo after The News & Observer requested the records late last month.

“As is standard practice with state agencies in North Carolina, the university system does not release documents from the attorney general’s office that contain privileged information or legal advice to the university,” UNC System spokesman Andy Wallace said in an email.

Lawmakers opt for more secrecy

Until last year though, attorney-client privilege didn’t last forever.

For decades, state public records law opened up attorney communication with public agencies after three years.

But buried in last year’s 600-page budget, state lawmakers included language that quietly repealed that three-year limit. That means if agencies want to keep secret records justifying the spending of millions in public money, they can.

The News & Observer’s recently launched investigative series, Power & Secrecy, is documenting how legislators are increasingly placing significant policy changes in the state budget without much or any public debate.

The change to attorney-client privilege went largely overlooked amid the legislature’s move to effectively exempt themselves from state public records law, said Kym Meyer, the past president of the N.C. Open Government Coalition and litigation director for the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Attorney-client privilege does serve a purpose, allowing lawyers to provide candid advice and strategy. But once that process is over, Meyer said, the public should eventually have the ability to see how governments and their attorneys acted in their interest.

Such transparency is especially valuable for formal memos written by the state’s top lawyers, she said.

“A memo like this — this is not a little email communication between an attorney and a client while they’re trying to haggle out details,” Meyer said.

Multi-million-dollar settlements with the state aren’t all that uncommon, according to the latest N.C. Department of Justice report to lawmakers.

From just September through March 2024, the attorney general’s office was involved in more than 200 settlements paid by various state government agencies. The majority of those settlements — about 80% — were payouts to property owners for land seized for road construction and other N.C. Department of Transportation projects, the DOJ report shows.

Agencies also paid out more than $34.3 million in that six-month period to settle more than 40 claims over state worker injuries, accidents and other disputes. This figure does not include the UNC settlement over sex abuse claims.

Every one of those cases, by state law, requires a formal legal opinion that the public is no longer entitled to see. Ever.

But Meyer said she’s more concerned about another aspect of the change. Making attorney-client communications public, even after a three-year waiting period, is a safeguard to ensure the government and its lawyers act on behalf of the public, she said. More secrecy could open the door to improper or unethical behavior — for example, situations where state agencies act to protect themselves instead of the people.

“If you know there’s going to be scrutiny, you’re going to be straight up,” Meyer said. “If you can assume no one is going to look at your conversations, who knows what kind of conduct you’re going to engage in?”

Allegations of decades of abuse

UNCSA opened in 1965 as the nation’s first public arts conservatory, housing both high school and university students on a 75-acre campus in Winston-Salem. While students and others complained about abuse over the years, the school did little to protect dance, drama and music students from teachers who had big influence over their access to training and long-term careers.

Seven dance alumni first filed the lawsuit in 2021. Over time, more alumni came forward complaining of teachers groping students, attempting to have sex with them and other forms of sexual abuse from the 1960s to the 2010s. Multiple alumni alleged they were raped by teachers or older students.

“Despite the clear obligation to the boys and girls who chose to attend the school, the Defendant Administrators instead permitted, participated in, encouraged, allowed, perpetuated and/or condoned a culture of sexual abuse and exploitation,” the lawsuit said.

A 1995 lawsuit accused two teachers of sexually abusing students, resulting in the creation of a special commission created by the UNC Board of Governors. The commission denied a pervasive pattern of improper misconduct, but forbade all relationships between teachers and students.

The commission’s findings incorrectly said that most of the alleged perpetrators had left the school, a 2021 News & Observer and Charlotte Observer investigation found. Through interviews with former members of the school community along with unpublished documents, reporters revealed that 24 members of the staff were accused of harassing or having relationships with students.

A judge dismissed the 1995 lawsuit because the plaintiff was older than 21, which surpassed the state’s statute for child sex abuse lawsuits. A change in legislation in 2019 paused those limitations for two years, allowing alumni to file child sex abuse lawsuits from January 2020 to December 2021.

After the settlement was finalized in May, UNC System President Peter Hans praised school leadership for “confronting this difficult chapter with compassion and integrity.”

Calling it a “dark time” for the institution, UNCSA Chancellor Brian Cole said he was “personally devastated” that anyone on campus would suffer abuse — and he committed to increasing trust and safety at the school.

“Though this resolution cannot heal the wounds of the past, it is my deep hope that through it, the survivors who came forward feel our commitment to listening, acknowledging and doing right by them,” Cole said.

Neither the school nor the UNC System, though, admit to any wrongdoing in the settlement agreement.

Defendants in the lawsuit “disagree with the allegations and representations made” and “deny the claims alleged against them,” the agreement said.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the page length of the 2023 budget bill. It was more than 600 pages.

NC Reality Check is an N&O series holding those in power accountable and shining a light on public issues that affect the Triangle or North Carolina. Have a suggestion for a future story? Email realitycheck@newsobserver.com.