Students sue BU, music teacher over sex harassment
By Evan Lips | April 12, 2016, 20:17 EDT
BOSTON – During an emotional and at times tearful news briefing, two Boston University students on Tuesday explained why they filed suit against the university and their one-time music professor, a world-renowned music French horn player, whom they claim repeatedly sexually harassed them.
The students, Erin Shyr and Maria Currie, accuse Professor of Music Eric Ruske of inappropriate touching, sending suggestive text messages and emails requesting “pics,” and comparing a student’s trumpet performances to sex.
The duo sued Ruske and Boston University in Suffolk County Superior Court Tuesday claiming that school Title IX administrators, who handle campus issues related to sexual harassment, turned a blind eye to their complaints about Ruske. The students say they have suffered permanent emotional and psychological damage as a result.
Citing a history of sexual harassment incidents, a lawyer for the students, Carmen Durso of Boston, said the school “was more concerned about keeping the violators happy than they were about protecting the students.”
“Is Professor Ruske at fault here? Sure,” Durso added. “Chasing after young women with his pathetic emails full of emoticons, sure.”
“But the real villains here are the BU administrators who lacked the will to keep his adolescent actions in check and to do their duty of protecting students from him,” Durso said. Federal regulations under Title IX guarantee access to educational opportunities regardless of sex at institutions that receive federal financial assistance, including freedom from discrimination such as sexual harassment, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
The lawsuit points out that BU’s Title IX compliance when handling sexual harassment complaints has been under investigation by the Education Department’s civil rights office since May 1, 2014. It also said such incidents have been “common” at the school for more than a decade.
Colin D. Riley, a BU spokesman, said Tuesday the school couldn’t comment as it had not reviewed the complaint. Ruske didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Ruske is currently performing on a tour in Wyoming.
The university’s passive handling of the students’ claims “led to Erin (Shyr) and Maria (Currie) for months trying to advocate for themselves,” said Sarah Elizabeth Burns, another lawyer for the students.
The school implemented a new sexual harassment policy in January 2015, according to the lawsuit. The new policy outlined procedures for handling complaints, investigations and sanctions, “but failed to require – or recommend – particular sanctions for sexual harassment.”
“When harassers are BU faculty members who also attract grant money, enjoy national or international reputations of excellence in their field, or hold tenure, BU fails to sanction them appropriately,” the lawsuit claims. “As a result, BU nurtured an environment where faculty members understand that if they harass one of their students, they will face few, if any, consequences.”
“Such has been the environment in the School of Music at BU’s College of Fine Arts,” the lawsuit asserts.
Several previous allegations lobbed over the years at the school’s music department are mentioned in the legal filing, including one 2007 incident in which a piano instructor left the school while allegedly under investigation for sexual harassment.
As for the students’ allegations against Ruske, who has been a fixture at the university for 26 years, the lawsuit claims the horn player, now 52, began treating Currie inappropriately in September 2013, the start of her sophomore year and the month she enrolled in a chamber ensemble coached by Ruske.
Currie alleged that during a meeting with the teacher following a poorly graded performance in December 2013, Ruske “compared the performance to sex, stating that listening to (Currie) play made him feel like the two of them were having sexual intercourse but that (Currie), though very beautiful, was only lying there and not doing anything.”
Other alleged incidents included instances in which Ruske apparently recognized his inappropriate behavior in apologies sent by texts or emails only to repeat the transgressions later. Currie alleges that on one occasion Ruske asked her to text her back “pix,” a message the student believed meant that he “was requesting photographs of her without any clothing.” The lawsuit says the messages were shown to BU Title IX administrators but they did little to relieve the situation.
Currie said in the complaint that she met with a BU administrator to talk about Ruske’s conduct and was told “she should have asked Ruske to stop sending the text messages.” In January, Currie enrolled at the New England Conservatory, a Boston-based school for musicians.
As for Shyr, an oboist, she said in the complaint that her troubles with Ruske began in 2014 when as a freshman she joined a woodwind chamber group led by the professor. Shyr alleges that Ruske soon began sending her what she considered to be inappropriate emails. The exchanges that ensued left her feeling uncomfortable, including one email she received while on spring break in which she claims Ruske asked whether she could send him photos of herself. She understood the request to be for nude pictures, according to the lawsuit.
Shyr said she addressed Ruske as either “sir” or “Mr. Ruske” in an “attempt to discourage his unprofessional behavior.”
Shyr’s interactions with Ruske prompted her to reach out to a trusted faculty member, who then put her in touch with the Title IX coordinator for the school, Patricia Mitro. During an April 14, 2014, meeting with Mitro and another Title IX administrator, Shyr said she shared copies of emails Ruske had sent.
“Mitro told Erin that, because of Ruske’s ‘vibrant and effusive’ personality, he may have been unaware that he violated BU’s Title IX policies,” the lawsuit states, noting that both administrators agreed that Ruske’s conduct constituted sexual harassment.
A May 19, 2014, email sent by an administrator to Shyr regarding her complaint, which is included as an exhibit in the lawsuit, shows that an investigation “indicated that Mr. Ruske’s conduct was inconsistent with BU’s policies.”
During Tuesday’s briefing, Shyr recalled the fear she felt when it appeared she would encounter Ruske.
“You don’t know where he is, but you can hear someone playing the horn, and you can hear his laugh down the hallway – and if it’s getting louder, he’s getting closer,” Shyr said. “It creates a lot of anxiety. Even the smallest things affect me.”
The lawsuit alleges that BU officials “were deliberately indifferent” to Ruske’s behavior, especially since weeks after receiving Currie’s complaint Ruske allegedly began the pattern all over again with Shyr.
“They betrayed the principles upon which the school was founded and most importantly they violated the law by being deliberately indifferent to well-being of these students and that is why Erin (Shyr) and Maria (Currie) have filed this suit, because they won’t be bullied by their professors and they won’t be ignored by the administration but most importantly they won’t let this happen again to other young women at Boston University,” Duro said. The lawsuit claims BU was negligent by retaining Ruske and failing to provide him with adequate job training and supervision.