Manitoba·CBC Investigates

Jazz prof Steve Kirby fired from Berklee College after U of M students share harassment complaints

Jazz professor Steve Kirby has been terminated from his job at Berklee College of Music after a number of University of Manitoba students and former students told the Boston-based college they had been harassed by Kirby.

Berklee reveals Kirby’s ‘termination’ at public forum on campus

The University of Manitoba said jazz professor Steve Kirby retired in late June, after being on leave for six months. He has now been fired from his position at Boston's Berklee College. (CBC)

Steve Kirby has been terminated from his job at Berklee College of Music after a number of University of Manitoba students and former students told the Boston-based college they had been harassed by the jazz professor during his time at the U of M.

"The burden of work has been placed on our shoulders," said a former U of M jazz student CBC is calling Nancy.

Over the course of its investigation, CBC has spoken with a number of the complainants. Because of the nature of the allegations we are protecting their identities.

At a public forum with students in Boston on Monday, Berklee administrators told the audience Kirby had been on administrative leave since the college learned of sexual harassment allegations against him from Manitoba and that "he has since been terminated from our community."

Video of the student forum in Boston has been posted via social media. Neither Berklee College nor Steve Kirby have responded to requests from CBC News for further information.

The University of Manitoba has previously said Kirby, who taught jazz with the university's school of music, retired in late June after being on leave for six months.​

'Burden of work' left to complainants

Citing provincial privacy legislation, the University of Manitoba would not tell Berklee College about its sexual harassment investigation involving Kirby, prompting many of his alleged victims to contact Berklee themselves.

"Putting the burden of work on victims' shoulders, victims who are sorting through their own trauma, who are dealing with their own situation, their own lives that have been affected by this — putting that burden of work on those students is abominable to me," said Nancy.

CBC has confirmed at least six of the women involved in a February 2017 complaint against Kirby independently contacted Berklee College, and communicated their concerns and the university investigator's conclusions.

Jazz prof Steve Kirby fired from Berklee College

6 years ago
Duration 4:21
Steve Kirby has been terminated from his job at Berklee College of Music after a number of University of Manitoba students and former students told the Boston-based college they had been harassed by the jazz professor during his time at the U of M.

The University of Manitoba's internal reports from last June detailed allegations of inappropriate comments, sexually explicit analogies, unwanted and lingering touching, long unwanted hugs and intimate ear-whispering. 

In reports reviewed by CBC, the investigator concluded all of the allegations had merit and that Kirby's alleged behaviour constituted "sexual harassment" and would have created an "intimidating, humiliating or offensive work or learning environment" for female students.

Although repeated attempts by CBC News to reach Kirby have been unsuccessful, in the university's internal investigation report, he "denies all claims made of any sexual innuendo or outright sexual approaches."

The women at the heart of the internal sexual harassment investigation into Kirby's conduct say the province's flawed privacy laws forced them to contact, and warn, his new employer.

The University of Manitoba told CBC it cannot share the details of internal investigations about staff because of provincial legislation. Both the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) and Workplace Health and Safety rules prohibit the university from sharing the information, the university said.

"The university is not able to proactively disclose information about investigations to external third parties. This would be a breach of legislation, including privacy and workplace, safety and health," the university's executive director of public affairs, John Danakas, said in a statement to CBC in September.

FIPPA 'safety clause' allows wiggle room

But there is some wiggle room within the existing legislation.

"Disclosures are permitted under specific circumstances, where disclosure is necessary to protect the safety of any individual or group of individuals," said Cathy Cox, the provincial minister responsible for FIPPA, in a statement to CBC.

So when Berklee started looking into the matter, why didn't the University of Manitoba enact the "safety" clause and share its internal investigation findings with Berklee College?

"Most experts will explain that the safety clause requires a high onus to demonstrate 'imminent danger,' as it involves taking away an individual's inherent right to privacy," Danakas explained in an email.

"Even the police only use those sections on occasion when a person, for example, is released from prison and deemed likely to reoffend."

'They didn't believe that we were in danger'

"It shows that they didn't quite take it seriously enough. They didn't believe that we were in danger," said a woman CBC is calling Krista, another student who took her concerns both to the university and to Winnipeg police.

"Physically, the women were in danger. Some physicality happened. Mentally, we were all impacted. We were all damaged and in danger," Krista said.

"Our self-worth was gone. Our belief in our self was gone.… Our passion was gone. Women were so torn apart by this."

Krista said she's angry the university didn't use the safety exemption in FIPPA to share its investigation with Berklee.

"It doesn't look like they did this to support their students, to stop something that was wrong.… They did this to cover their butts," Krista said.

"The university takes matters concerning sexual harassment very seriously and abides by legal guidelines in the sharing of any information," Danakas countered.

'Be loud with your opinions'

The students say since the news of the investigation broke this fall, many in the Winnipeg music and university communities have approached them and asked how they can help.

"The only thing I would hope for from the public — and from this community and society — is to respect the privacy and understand, and work towards, protecting our young women," Krista said.

"What does that look like? That is speaking to the government about provincial laws, writing letters, writing petitions," she said.

"Put your opinions forward to the university, to the government about the privacy laws. If you feel unsafe or unhappy with the university and how they've conducted themselves, let them know — schedule meetings, write to them," Krista said. "Be loud with your opinions."

Krista is the second woman who told CBC that she has filed a report to police about Kirby's alleged conduct.

Internal change needed

The women say change isn't needed only at the provincial level — it's needed within the university as well.

"I think there's a big lack of education at the university, within the university staff," said Nancy.

"I want to believe that had they been better educated about this, they would have made better choices," she said. "And it's a problem when the staff at the university is not trained to know when someone is coming forward speaking to you about abuse that they are experiencing, it is likely the tip of the iceberg."

Nancy believes the university needs to develop better supports for students to guide them through the complaint process and keep them in the loop about the progress being made.

"Sharing this kind of information is very distressing for a victim [who] often is in the middle of processing it themselves. So staff at the university needs to be more educated about trauma and this type of abuse. If they are not, they need to direct us to people who are."

The University of Manitoba says that since September, it has has taken a number of steps to address sexual harassment. It described those steps as:

  • Meetings between senior U of M leadership and the Faculty of Music Students' Association. Constructive, primarily listening opportunities.
  • Meetings between U of M leadership and the University of Manitoba Student's Union and the Graduate Students' Association. Beginning process of policy review.
  • Meetings between faculty of music dean and associate dean, and music students and music student leadership. Commitments to adopt best practices, such as appointing liaisons to assist students with concerns.
  • Open session for all music students to answer questions on behavioural matters.
  • Two open sessions for university community to discuss behavioural policies. 
  • Workshops for staff on responding to disclosure.
  • Discussion of behavioural matters with commitments to inform review process at several levels, such as the student experience committee.

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