Former Utah State University piano student sues professor who she says assaulted her; college has opened a new investigation

( Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune file photo) The iconic Old Main Building on Utah State University's Logan campus. A former piano student at Utah State is suing a professor there, alleging that he sexually assaulted her when she was a freshman at the college in 1994.

A former piano student at Utah State University is suing a professor there, alleging that he sexually assaulted her when she was a freshman in 1994.

In a lawsuit filed Monday, Jaime Aikele Caliendo said she was 17 and piano teacher Dennis Hirst was 23 when he assaulted her in his apartment.

Caliendo shared her allegations against Hirst with the school earlier this year, during a wide-reaching investigation of the piano department following complaints of sexism and abuse. That report, released in April, included Caliendo’s account along with those of more than 40 current and former students.

USU this summer launched a new investigation into Hirst, focusing on allegations made by Caliendo, said USU spokesman Tim Vitale.

"We were made aware of some additional information that the [first] report did not address in its conclusions," Vitale said.

After the earlier report, the head piano teacher resigned and the school demoted the leader of its Title IX office, which investigates sexual misconduct and discrimination. Hirst kept his position but received a letter of reprimand for enabling sexist and abusive practices; he later disputed those findings.

Neither Hirst nor Caliendo’s attorney could be reached for comment.

In 1994, Hirst was a new teacher at USU's Youth Conservatory, where Caliendo had studied for about six years before enrolling at USU as a piano major, according to the lawsuit. The Tribune typically does not identify accusers in sexual violence investigations, but Caliendo agreed to the use of her name.

Caliendo had become friends with Hirst, and he invited her to his apartment three times, the lawsuit states.

During the second visit Hirst groped her despite her objections, the complaint alleges, but eventually they began socializing again as friends and she returned to his apartment. On the third visit, the lawsuit alleges, he assaulted her again. Caliendo suffered vaginal bleeding for three weeks, according to the complaint.

Caliendo reported the alleged assault to police, according to the lawsuit, but Hirst declined to be interviewed by police and no charges were filed.

Hirst went on to grade Caliendo's piano recitals, the complaint states.

Caliendo has suffered nightmares and thoughts of self-harm, according to the lawsuit. From 2007 to 2009, the woman claims, Hirst repeatedly walked on the sidewalk outside of her home in Cache County and stared at her family.

USU this summer hired an attorney from the Salt Lake City firm Parr Brown to investigate Caliendo’s account, Vitale said.

It is the second investigation this year into USU’s piano faculty. In February, the university hired Salt Lake City attorney Alan Sullivan to look into alleged abuses in the piano department, following a series of social media posts by former piano students who said they were harassed, bullied and assaulted while at USU.

That investigation found that piano students had endured “pervasive” sexism and abuse from piano faculty, and school administrators had done little to address complaints of discrimination and multiple assault allegations against faculty.

The head piano teacher, Gary Amano, announced his retirement one day after the Tribune published a story detailing allegations of mistreatment and misconduct from 20 former and current students at USU and the Youth Conservatory, including eight students who said they complained to university administrators.

The university also demoted the school’s Title IX director, Stacy Sturgeon, who later resigned with a severance package after heading the office since 2014. At least seven complaints from piano students reached the Title IX office, three of those while Sturgeon was in charge, according to Sullivan’s report.

In August, the dean of USU’s fine arts college — former Mormon Tabernacle Choir director Craig Jessop — stepped down from his post. The Tribune learned of five cases in which students said Jessop was made aware of piano students’ complaints; he received reports from three women in one year alone. Following the most recent complaint, in 2017, Jessop asked Amano to take a sabbatical, but no further action was taken until former students began complaining on social media in February and March. School administrators said Jessop will return in 2020 as a music professor.

The investigation found Hirst had “enabled Professor Amano’s discriminatory acts, or else ignored them, without taking meaningful steps to hold him accountable or correct the problems to which they led.”

In July, university officials issued a letter of reprimand to Hirst, reiterating the findings of Sullivan’s investigation but also noting that Hirst took measures to correct some sexist practices, such as scholarship distribution that gave women, on average, 41 cents to every dollar awarded to men. The letter also acknowledges an “outpouring of positive support” for Hirst by current and former students following the investigation, and states that Hirst has “expressed regret” for his conduct.

Two days later, Hirst responded to his reprimand, denying that he contributed to a psychologically abusive environment and blaming Amano for the department’s problems. He wrote that his regret stems only from the “teaching approach” he used early in his career at USU.

The report by Sullivan implicates Hirst in student complaints of “humiliation, intimidation and vindictiveness,” but USU released the document with heavy redactions — including the names of multiple faculty members accused of sexual assault.

Caliendo confirmed that she is identified as “Former Student 10” in a redacted passage of the report. However, an earlier release of the report includes more of her account, showing that she provided violent details from her assault allegation, as well as her accusation that Hirst “terrorized her off and on for years.” It also refers to a report Caliendo made about a month after the alleged attack — apparently her report to police.

Both versions show that Amano communicated with Caliendo’s family about her allegation against Hirst, and include Caliendo’s report that Amano claimed Caliendo’s encounter with Hirst was consensual — and that Amano blamed her parents for it because Caliendo “had been given too much freedom.” Amano confirmed to investigators he was aware of sexual contact between the teacher and student, but he did not believe it required further action because “‘rape was not mentioned’ to him,” the report states.

Sullivan’s investigation also showed that Caliendo reported making a complaint to USU’s Title IX office years after she graduated, and that officials there “declined to do anything about this complaint.” The only relevant Title IX file says that the complainant refused to give her full name or the name of the faculty member who she said attacked her, Sullivan wrote.

USU officials have been accused of mishandling a number of rape reports in recent years, including the cases of two fraternity members who were later charged with several sexual assaults and former USU football player Torrey Green, who is accused of sexually assaulting seven women while he was a student in Logan between 2013 and 2015.