ASHEVILLE, N.C. — A North Carolina flute camp is standing behind — and continuing to employ a renowned flute instructor and professor facing allegations of sexual harassment of students spanning two decades.
Bradley Garner, a former University of Cincinnati professor, was the subject of a university investigation in 2016 that found evidence of "unwanted sexual advances and verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature," as well as a "hostile environment." The university's preliminary report contained interviews with nine students who said Garner kissed them, touched them inappropriately or said inappropriate things to them.
Several students who spoke to The Cincinnati Enquirer about Garner and inappropriate behavior said they met him at the Wildacres Flute Retreat, a prestigious week-long flute camp held every year in the Little Switzerland area of northern McDowell County in western North Carolina.
Anna Thibeault, course director of Wildacres Flute Retreat, said Garner has taught at the camp, which draws students from all over the United States and the world, for 15 years.
"I've been the director since 2003, and I have never had anyone ever come up to me and complain about any of his behavior," said Thibeault. "He’s a great teacher, he’s a wonderful player, and he’s a really nice person to work with. I was disgusted with what I read in the Cincinnati (paper)."
One former teacher at Wildacres Flute Retreat, Helen Spielman, said she raised concerns about Garner with Thibeault in early January and about a year ago, as rumors about the University of Cincinnati's investigation were making the rounds in the flute world. Spielman taught a course on performance anxiety at Wildacres Flute Retreat for 13 years, leaving in 2016.
Spielman said she was surprised by Thibeault's dismissive attitude when she asked the director to consider writing a code of ethics for the flute retreat and its staffers. The retreat hosts 50-60 students a year, ranging in age from 12 to adulthood.
Spielman said the director also told her the allegations surrounding Garner were "not my problem." Spielman said she argued that to prevent an incident, "Wouldn't it make sense to try to pre-empt the situation from happening in the first place by having a code of ethics in place that you expect your faculty to adhere to?"
"Her response to that was, ‘Some 15-year-old girls are little nymphos, and not every underage girl is an innocent girl to be set upon by men,' " Spielman said. "She said some women are just as anxious to fool around as men, and as far as she knows (Garner was) not a danger to anyone."
Thibeault said that is a misinterpretation of that conversation, referring to Spielman with an epithet.
"I was trying to explain to Helen, who is a horrible old biddy ... I was trying to explain to her that the situation is far more complicated than just this whole ‘me too’ thing, where all men are evil and all women are victims," Thibeault said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "So I told her about this one girl we had up there, who, she was a nympho. I had to tell her, 'You have be in your bed by 11 o'clock every night, or I’m going to call your mother.' My point was, we get all kinds."
Thibeault said she had nicknamed the 15-year-old girl in question "Lolita" because of her flirtatious behavior.
Thibeault was adamant that inappropriate behavior is not condoned at the camp, and that her remarks to Spielman were simply an effort to explain that girls under 18 who attend the camp can present liability concerns. She insists Spielman is twisting her words.
"So that was completely misinterpreted to mean what? That it’s OK for the male teachers to go and screw around with them? Because that’s not what I said," Thibeault said.
Garner has never displayed inappropriate behavior at the camp, Thibeault said, and she considers the allegations against him a "witch hunt" largely driven by one former student.
The Enquirer, which like the Asheville (N.C.) Citizen Times, is a part of the USA TODAY Network, noted that the University of Cincinnati's preliminary report contained interviews with nine students who said Garner kissed them, touched them inappropriately or said inappropriate things to them. A former university professor also told investigators he witnessed Garner’s sexual misconduct with students, including videos of Garner having sexual relations with two students, the paper reported.
Also, three of the nine students and the former professor made similar charges regarding Garner in interviews with The Enquirer. Two other women who studied with Garner, 61, detailed their own allegations of harassment to The Enquirer.
Spielman, 66, said she never saw "anything directly" at the camp that she would consider inappropriate faculty behavior, except some instructors drinking alcohol in front of students. She had little interaction with Garner.
"He was always cordial to me, although I felt he never sought me out or initiated conversation," Spielman said.
Garner is a star in the flute world. He has performed as a soloist in Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, and he frequently played with the New York Philharmonic and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. He also taught until June of last year at Julliard Pre-College in New York, a weekly program where he taught students under age 18.
Garner will remain on the faculty at Wildacres, Thibeault said. But Spielman will "never, ever set foot on Wildacres again," Thibeault said.
"I know the easiest way would be to say, ‘Brad, I think maybe you had better not come back,' but I’ve got more of a moral backbone than that," Thibeault said. "I think it’s very, very unfair, and I’m so disgusted."
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