Your Worst Nightmare—and How to Deal with It
Protecting yourself and your studio from costly risks
What studio owner wants to spend time thinking about the worst that can happen? Yet as the dance studio business continues to expand, the number of dance studio–related scandals seems to grow in proportion: Sexual abuse allegations make headlines, copycat studios pop up around the corner and “borrowed” choreography winds up onstage at the next competition. Thinking through a crisis management plan ahead of time and adopting wise risk-reduction strategies will help protect the hard-earned success you’ve achieved. Read on for three studio scenarios and the steps to appropriately deal with them and prevent them from happening at all.
When Your Employee Is Accused of Abuse
If a student has accused one of your faculty members of sexual abuse, you’ll immediately need a lawyer. Let parents and students know what steps you’ve taken to get to the bottom of the situation, and tell them the faculty member has been suspended until any allegations are proven false or true. Most important, announce that you are entirely available for any questions or concerns. Your clientele needs to know that their safety is always your first priority.
Amber Henrie, CEO of the New York City–based public relations firm In The Lights, recommends issuing a statement within 24 hours—and making sure that your statement is first reviewed carefully by your legal counsel. “Don’t feel pressured to respond immediately and rashly,” Henrie advises. “You don’t want to let your emotions influence your public response, especially if you find yourself aligning strongly with either your faculty member or the student.”
The statement should be transparent, concise and professional, Henrie says, with an opening paragraph acknowledging the situation and another explaining what is being done. Generally, 400 words is an ideal length for your statement. “It’s important to get positive words out,” she says. “Words like ‘committed,’ ‘responsible,’ ‘sorry’ and ‘safe’ work well. Just think how you’d want to be dealt with if you were on the other end, and you’ll find the appropriate tone.” She also warns that you’ll need to immediately implement any changes you have promised: “That’s how your parents will see that you’re there to protect and support your students.”
Risk-Reducing Practices: Institute mandatory employee background checks, if legal in your state, including personal references, a police record check and an educational record check, says Joanne Klenk, vice president of insurance operations at dance studio insurer Scott Danahy Naylon Insurance Agency.
Make sure your studio insurance includes coverage for accusations of abuse and molestation. “Without an abuse and molestation policy as part of your liability insurance, you’ll have no defense coverage,” says Klenk. “Even if the accusations are groundless, you’ll still be entirely on your own dime.”
In staff orientations and regular meetings, be sure to cover how to recognize the signs of abuse and handle reports of abuse. Physical interaction between dance teacher and student is important for kinesthetic understanding, but train your faculty to avoid situations that could be deemed questionable, such as being alone with a student or helping dancers change in the dressing room.
Implement a plan to monitor staff in day-to-day relationships with your students. “You’ll always want two people in the room,” says Klenk. Parents will be grateful for the extra class supervision, and your staff will be appreciative to have someone else to corroborate their stories if allegations ensue.
Install windows in your studio classrooms, Klenk advises, to promote transparency of all studio practices. Encourage parents to be present, especially at costume fittings, and to supervise any dressing room trips.
When Your Employee Leaves—with a Contingent of Students
If a faculty member has recently gone on to start her own studio and absconded with a significant portion of your clientele, it is always best to immediately address the situation with your parents and students, according to Henrie, rather than hoping it will pass unnoticed. “You need to let your clients know that you’re aware of what’s going on and that you care enough about them to keep them well-informed,” she says.
Henrie recommends putting a positive spin on the situation, letting your clientele know via e-mail or your studio newsletter that your former teacher has left to realize her own studio dream or to join another school and that you wish her well. But focus your message on who and what will be the replacement at your studio. Introduce a new faculty member in an exciting way, highlighting what she brings to your school and what new classes will be offered.
Risk-Reducing Practices: Include a noncompete clause in your employees’ contracts (independent contractors have more autonomy), stipulating that they cannot open their own studios or join the faculty of another studio within a specified radius. See rocketlawyer.com to download a free, fill-in-the-blanks noncompete agreement, tailored to your state’s legalities—but have it reviewed by your own attorney.
Foster faculty loyalty by offering salary incentives for long-term employees, alerting your teachers to continuing education opportunities via educational workshops (subsidized, if possible) and giving the faculty your respect.
Rotate teachers among the different levels at your studio, so that your students become attached to the studio itself and not to one particular teacher. Keep yourself in the classroom, too, to remind your clientele that you are more than just the titular head of the studio.
When Another Studio Steals Your Choreography
If you discover that your choreography has been stolen by another studio or choreographer and passed off as original material, issue a polite letter or e-mail to the studio, asking that the choreographer stop using and performing your material, or else give you credit and payment for it. Explain that you are happy to work out a licensing arrangement, for a fee, for any future use of your work. Note that if a piece of choreography is created by an employee of your studio, that dance piece belongs to the studio, unless an explicit provision has been made in a faculty member’s employment contract. If the choreography is created by a guest artist, however, that material belongs to him or her—unless otherwise stipulated in a contract.
Risk-Reducing Practices: Julie Van Camp, lawyer and retired ethics professor at California State University, Long Beach, recommends the following plan of action to reduce intellectual property theft:
• Make a video of the piece in its entirety and post it on YouTube, with a copyright notice, posting date and performance date.
• Register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office (about $35—see copyright.gov), using the video.
The next step in an intellectual property case would be to pursue an infringement claim, but Van Camp warns that this is expensive and difficult, since it requires hiring an attorney who specializes in intellectual property, and the originality of the work would have to be sorted out in litigation—a tricky situation in itself, since dance plagiarism is difficult to prove and lacks a clear, legal definition. Furthermore, it’s hard to nail down damages—how much money, exactly, was lost as a result of the choreography theft? Can you accurately and convincingly quantify that amount in tuition or number of students?
Slippery scenarios such as these can be tricky to navigate, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be dealt with professionally and confidently. A well-prepared studio owner won’t need to waste time putting together a crisis plan when actual disaster strikes—she’ll already be busy putting it into action. DT