Several alumni of Bowie High School allege that the school’s theater director, Diane “Betsy” Cornwell, created an unsafe and toxic environment.
Austin, Texas – Editor’s Note: Watch this full report tonight at 6pm and 10pm on KVUE News
A long time Austin I.S.D Teacher is being investigated by the district after several former Bowie High School Students said she subjected them to emotional and verbal abuse and inappropriately touched students.
The Bowie alumni told the KVUE Defenders that what they went through was so troubling that they are now suing Bowie High School theater director Diane “Betsy” Cornwell and the school district so other students don’t suffer as they do .
Cornwell, who has been with Austin ISD for more than 40 years, is on paid administrative leave while the district investigates the allegations.
The plaintiffs’ attorney said they are cooperating with the Austin ISD Police Department.
The former students told KVUE Defenders reporter Jenni Lee about private lovemaking that involved groping over and under clothes and questioned the teacher’s use of traumatic memories to trigger emotional breakdowns.
That allegations are also described in the lawsuit filed September 29 in federal court.
The alleged practices are something experts said should never happen in a youth drama class.
“I was very ashamed,” said 25-year-old Dana Havlin.
“I felt small,” said 27-year-old Andie Haddad.
“Looking back, it almost feels to them like we’re not human,” said 28-year-old Sarah Andrews.
“Students deserve a place where they feel safe,” said 26-year-old Walden Hagelman.
But it’s far from certain how these former acting students said they felt when they were part of the Starlight Theater Company at Bowie High School in Austin.
Although all of them loved acting, they said they were traumatized by the teaching methods Cornwell used.
“I was hospitalized with suicidal thoughts. And I really don’t think that would have happened if I hadn’t participated in this extracurricular activity, at the company, at the theater company,” Havlin said.
The group said it was only when they learned Bowie’s new performing arts center would bear Cornwell’s name that they decided to sue.
“It didn’t suit me,” Andrews said.
“It was very shocking,” Havlin said.
“It was very disappointing for me,” Hagelman said.
“I can’t shut down Slaughter without distancing myself. And so the name on the building was just too much for me,” Haddad said.
All four alumni said they are currently in therapy.
Her lawsuit accused Cornwell of “making inappropriate sexual comments, inappropriate touching, abusive and abusive language, assault, physical harm, emotional and psychological abuse and manipulation, and allowing sexual assault under her direction.”
“What happened hurt me,” Havlin said.
The former students visited Bowie between 2008 and 2015. While going through old yearbooks, Haddad said seeing them brought back bad memories.
“I don’t like looking at them,” Haddad said.
During a 2012 rehearsal for The Crucible, Haddad claimed that Cornwell “instructiond” her “and her male co-star … to be intimate with each other, to be on the floor and kiss and be sensual” in front of her castmates .
“I was encouraged to go on the floor in the dark, make out, kiss, grope, whatever. We were goaded,” Haddad said. “It made me feel replaceable and insignificant.”
Havlin said she felt the same way during a private rehearsal for a 2013 school play The Herbal Bed. Havlin said the only other people at the rehearsal were the male lead, another student, and Cornwell.
“And then the director told us to stop walking and just practice intimacy. And at that point we lay down on the floor and, you know, we roll over one person on top of the other person just to practice intimacy, simulate sex,” Havlin said.
Hagelman claimed that many of these intimacy rehearsals in the theater took place behind “closed” doors and only Cornwell had the keys.
Hagelman said one of the sealed samples went too far.
“She directed the other student to stand behind me and we were still doing the lines and making out, open mouths, tongues, and she wasn’t happy,” Hagelman said. “And while she was goading us and telling us, ‘We’re supposed to look married and tell each other to look passionate,’ he put his hands under my shirt. He touched my breasts. He put his other hands under the band of my jeans.”
Kaitlin Hopkins is a professor of practice in the Institute for Theater and Dance at Texas State University. She is an award-winning actress, producer and director who has worked in film, television and on and off Broadway for more than 30 years.
“I would never make students practice intimacy at a rehearsal,” Hopkins said.
Hopkins said intimacy scenes, particularly with teenage actors, should be choreographed under the direction of an intimacy coordinator. She said these practices have been the industry standard for about five years.
“It is based on consent work. It is based on border work. And it’s so that actors can exercise intimacy in a way that looks real and effective but keeps everyone safe,” Hopkins said.
The former student lawsuit also alleges that Cornwell instructed students to share past trauma with the class and use it to create emotional outbursts.
“And you never knew when those things were going to be pulled against you. And that added to the fear and the depressing nature of the setting as a whole,” Andrews said.
“I remember having to be excused from class because I was a mess and I was crying. I was a heartbroken mess,” Haddad said.
“Oh, just absolutely awful,” Andrews said.
Andrews once said she remembered being unable to cry during a rehearsal until Cornwell used sensitive information about her parents to break her.
“Just horrible insinuations about my parents’ personal life and that it might have been my fault because of some of my, you know, health issues and theatrical desires that have taken up so much of my time,” Andrews said.
Hopkins said it’s not safe for teenage actors to draw on past trauma to heighten emotions.
“We never want to trigger any past trauma or lived experience that is unsafe for an actor to have. You know, you’re navigating mental health issues and all sorts of things that wouldn’t be appropriate. ‘ Hopkins said.
Carolyn Mehlomakulu is a licensed family therapist specializing in treating teenagers.
“I think it’s absolutely vital that every kid in school, at any age, feels safe… If it’s something that a kid is still struggling with, then they’re going to have this potentially retraumatizing experience when they have that experience.” going through, you know, which might affect their relationships with their peers, might upset them when they’re at school so they don’t study as well, or they might try to manage those emotions on a daily basis,” Mehlomakulu said.
Mehlomakulu also said reliving trauma can have lasting effects and affect students’ trust in teachers.
Andrews said she remembered something Cornwell did just before a performance when she was 14.
“The director came over to me and grabbed me and kissed me on the lips and grabbed the boy next to me and kissed him on the lips. And she just slapped the third boy in the face,” Andrews said.
The group alleges in their lawsuit that “Cornwell would tickle and inappropriately touch students” and that they “coerced Walden to perform lap dances and perform intimate sexual acts” in the production of Miss Saigon.
“Students deserve to have their bodies and minds nurtured and allowed to grow,” Hagelman said.
The lawsuit also alleges, “Cornwell encouraged Walden to get a spray tan, dye her hair black, and apply winged eyeliner to play the role of a Vietnamese character in Miss Saigon.”
But according to the suit, it wasn’t just Walden.
The lawsuit alleges that Hagelman participated in “racially and sexually inappropriate musicals” in which “every black student was cast as a black character and asked to darken their skin for the roles.”
“It’s insulting. It’s inappropriate … I’m at a loss for words because I’m just picking another show,” Hopkins said.
KVUE defense attorneys contacted Cornwell about the allegations. She referred us to her attorney.
Through her attorney, Cornwell declined our request for an interview.
“I don’t want what happened to me to happen to other kids,” Havlin said.
Opening up and sharing what they’ve been through hasn’t been easy. But the former students said it’s worth it if they can help make schools and arts safer for students.
“I’m here to bring about the dramatic change I wish would be made before I got to school,” Hagelman said.
dr Eden Hagelman is Walden’s mother.
“It’s very, very worrying,” said Dr. hagelman
She said she was unaware of the alleged incidents mentioned in the lawsuit until Walden recently told her.
“It’s really a lot to digest. I’m an educator myself and it’s just such an important responsibility that we have towards the children in our care. And it’s just hard to deal with the fact that that happened and that I didn’t know about it,” Dr. Hagelman said. “There’s just a lot of excitement and a lot of empathy for the kids, you know, because they wouldn’t know what to do or how to deal with it or what exactly is happening. That really breaks my heart. And, you know, I wish I knew, but I didn’t. And there’s such a thing a sense of guilt and responsibility that is challenging.
Jens Despins is the plaintiff’s attorney.
“They had clearly gone through significant trauma. It had affected each of them and their lives from that point forward. Again, I was very worried, as a parent, and I have, you know, kids who are involved in extracurricular activities. And I understand that where they find their happiness, where they find their sense of belonging, where they find their self-worth. That’s why they go to school. I mean, that’s her luck. And that was just the opposite for these students,” Despins said.
The alumni group wants Cornwell’s name removed from Bowie’s performing arts center and hopes their lawsuit will force Austin ISD to institute proper training and supervision of theater teachers.
The KVUE Defenders reached out to Austin ISD for comment. A county spokesman said they were unable to discuss ongoing investigations.
https://www.kvue.com/article/news/investigations/defenders/austin-bowie-high-school-betsy-cornwell/269-1adc6eff-aa82-4cfd-b737-935384bdcdc8 ‘Just absolutely terrible’ | Longtime Austin ISD teacher accused of verbal and emotional abuse and other violations