Boys Choir Director Accused in Lawsuit of Hitting Students
By Alan Feuer, January 11, 2004

Corporal punishment was a common part of the rehearsal process for the Boys Choir of Harlem, and the choir's founder and director, Walter J. Turnbull, sometimes struck choir members who performed poorly, lawyers for a former student at the choir's academy said yesterday.

The lawyers have filed a $30 million lawsuit against Dr. Turnbull on behalf of the former student, an 18-year-old who also accused the director of failing to report complaints that the academy's chief counselor had sexually molested him for years.

Last week, the choir's board of directors, prompted by a city investigation into the former student's claim, demanded Dr. Turnbull's resignation. In a scathing memo sent to the board before Christmas, investigators accused Dr. Turnbull of failing to report the allegations of sexual abuse when he learned about them in 2001 and allowing the counselor to remain in contact with students even after city officials had explicitly banned him from the school.

Dr. Turnbull, who has directed hundreds of the choir's engagements, has asked the board to reconsider its decision. The board has also demanded the resignation of his brother, Horace, who serves as the choir's executive vice president.

In an interview yesterday, lawyers for the former student said Dr. Turnbull would often hit choir members who sang off key or otherwise performed poorly.

"According to our client, students were routinely slapped and hit by Turnbull," said Terrence Randell, one of the lawyers. "This would happen during choir rehearsal."

Mr. Randell's partner, Michael Dowd, added: "It was like getting hit by the football coach."

Alan L. Fuchsberg, Dr. Turnbull's lawyer, denied the allegations. "I am certain that this is absolutely untrue," he said.

The lawsuit, which was filed on Wednesday in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, also charges that the city Department of Education allowed the physical and sexual abuse to occur by improperly overseeing the academy, which falls under its jurisdiction as a public school.

A spokeswoman for the city's corporation counsel said yesterday that the city had not yet seen the lawsuit and could not comment.

The suit seeks $30 million in compensatory and punitive damages from Walter Turnbull, Horace Turnbull, the city, and John King, the principal of the choir academy. It also seeks damages from Frank Jones Jr., the counselor who abused the student.

Mr. Jones was convicted of sexual abuse and endangering the welfare of a minor in 2002. He is serving a two-year prison sentence.

A rally in support of Dr. Turnbull, at the choir's academy on Madison Avenue in Harlem, was canceled yesterday because of the cold, but a few parents of choir members turned up.

"They made a mistake, but everybody's entitled to make a mistake," one parent, Sherrod Miggins, said of the Turnbulls' behavior in the sexual abuse case. "You forgive people for their mistakes."


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