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'Just absolutely horrible' | Long-time Austin ISD teacher accused of verbal and emotional abuse, other violations

Several former Bowie High School students claim the school's theatre director, Diane "Betsy" Cornwell, created an unsafe and toxic environment.

AUSTIN, Texas — A long-time Austin ISD teacher is under investigation 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 disturbing, they're now suing Bowie High School's theatre director, Diane "Betsy" Cornwell, and the school district so other students don't suffer as they did.

Cornwell, who has been with Austin ISD for more than 40 years, is on paid administrative leave as the district investigates the allegations.

The plaintiffs' attorney said that they're cooperating with the Austin ISD Police Department.

The former students told KVUE Defenders reporter Jenni Lee about private romance rehearsals that involved groping above and beneath clothing and questioned the teacher's use of traumatic memories to trigger emotional breakdowns.

The allegations are also described in the lawsuit, which was filed on Sept. 29 in federal court.   

The alleged practices are something experts said should never happen in a youth drama class.

"I felt a lot of shame," 25-year-old Dana Havlin said.    

"It made me feel small," 27-year-old Andie Haddad said. 

"Looking back, it almost feels like we were not humans to her," 28-year-old Sarah Andrews said.

"Students deserve a place to feel safe," 26-year-old Walden Hagelman said.

But safe is far from how these former drama students said they felt when they were part of the Starlight Theatre Company at Austin's Bowie High School.    

While all of them loved acting, they said they were traumatized by the teaching methods used by Cornwell.

"I was hospitalized for suicidal ideation. And I truly believe that that would not have happened if I hadn't been in this extracurricular activity, in the company, the theater company," Havlin said.

The group said it wasn't until they learned that Bowie's new performing arts center would bear Cornwell's name that they decided to sue.

"That didn't sit well with me," Andrews said.

"It was very shocking," Havlin said.

"It was very disappointing to me," Hagelman said.

In January, the Austin ISD Board of Trustees approved naming Bowie's performing arts center after Cornwell.

"I can't drive down Slaughter without dissociating.  And so the name on the building just was too much for me," Haddad said.

All four alumni said they are in therapy right now.

Their lawsuit accuses Cornwell of "inappropriate sexual comments, inappropriate touching, harmful and abusive language, assault, battery, emotional and psychological abuse and manipulation and allowing sexual assaults to happen under her direction."

"What happened hurt me," Havlin said.

The former students attended Bowie between 2008 and 2015.  While going through old yearbooks, Haddad said looking at them brought back bad memories.

"I don't love looking at these," Haddad said.

During a rehearsal for "The Crucible" in 2012, Haddad claimed Cornwell "instructed" her "and her male scene partner ... to be intimate with each other, lie on the floor and kiss and to be sensual" in front of their castmates.

"I was encouraged to get on the floor in the dark, make out, kiss, grope, whatever. We were being egged on," Haddad said. "It made me feel replaceable and insignificant."

Havlin said it was the same for her 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, one other student and Cornwell.

"And then the director instructed us to stop running lines and to just practice intimacy. And at that point, we laid down on the ground and, you know, we're rolling around one person on top of the other person just practicing intimacy, simulating sex," Havlin said.

Hagelman claimed many of those intimacy rehearsals took place in the theatre behind "locked" doors and only Cornwell had the keys.

Hagelman said one of the locked rehearsals went too far.

"She instructed the other student to stand behind me, and we were still doing the lines and we were making out, open mouths, tongues, and she wasn't satisfied," Hagelman said." And as she was egging us on, telling us to look married and telling us 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 Department of Theatre 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 actually have students practicing intimacy in a rehearsal," Hopkins said.

Hopkins said intimacy scenes, especially with youth actors, should be choreographed under the direction of an intimacy coordinator. She said these practices have been the industry standard for about the past five years.

"It's based in consent work. It's based in boundary work. And it's so that actors can do intimacy in a way that looks real and effective but is keeping everyone safe," Hopkins said.

The former students' lawsuit also claims Cornwell instructed students to share past traumas with the class and use them to generate emotional outbreaks.

"And you never knew when those things were going to be pulled against you. And that added to the anxiety and the oppressive nature of the environment as a whole," Andrews said.

"I remember having to be excused from class because I was a mess, crying. I was an inconsolable mess," Haddad said.

"Oh, just absolutely horrible," Andrews said.

Andrews said, one time, she recalled being unable to cry during a rehearsal until Cornwell used sensitive information about her parents to break her. 

"Just awful insinuations about my parents' home life and how it might have been my fault due to some of my, you know, health issues and theater aspirations that had taken so much time," Andrews said.

Hopkins said drawing on past traumas to heighten emotions is not safe for youth actors.

"We don't ever want to trigger any type of past trauma or lived experiences that are not going to be safe for an actor. You know, then you're navigating mental health issues and all kinds of things that would not be appropriate," Hopkins said.

Carolyn Mehlomakulu is a licensed family therapist who specializes in treating teenagers.

"I think it's absolutely essential for every child to feel safe at school of any age ... If it's something that a child is still struggling with, then having them go through that experience that's potentially retraumatizing is then going to have those ripple effects of, you know, possibly impacting their peer relationships, possibly upsetting them when they're in school so that then they're not learning as well or that they're trying to kind of deal with these 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 still remembers something Cornwell did right before a performance when she was 14 years old. 

"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 the third boy, she just slapped across the face," Andrews said.

The group claims in their lawsuit that "Cornwell would tickle and inappropriately touch students" and that she "forced Walden to give lap dances and perform intimate sexual acts" in the production of "Miss Saigon."

"Students deserve to have their bodies and their minds be cared for and allowed to grow up," Hagelman said.

The lawsuit also claims "Cornwell encouraged Walden to get a spray tan, dye her hair black and painted on winged eyeliner in order to look the part of a Vietnamese character in Miss Saigon.

But it wasn't just Walden, according to the suit.

The suit claims Hagelman took part in "racially and sexually inappropriate musicals" where "every student of color was cast as a Black character and told to darken their skin for the roles."

"It's offensive. It's inappropriate ... I'm at a loss for words, because, just pick a different show," Hopkins said.

The KVUE Defenders 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 any other children," Havlin said.

Opening up and sharing what they went through wasn't easy. But the former students said it's worth it if they can help make schools and the arts safer for students.

"I am here to make the dramatic change I wish was made before I got to school," Hagelman said.

Dr. Eden Hagelman is Walden's mother.

"It's very, very upsetting," Dr. Hagelman said.

She said she didn't know about any of the alleged incidents mentioned in the lawsuit until recently when Walden told her.

"It's really a lot to digest. I am an educator myself and it's just such an important responsibility we have to the children in our care. And it just is hard to wrap your head around the fact that that happened and that I didn't know about it," Dr. Hagelman said. "There's just a lot of upset and a lot of empathy for the kids, you know, because they would not know viscerally what to do or how to handle it or even what exactly is happening. That really breaks my heart. And, you know, I wish that I knew, but I didn't. And so there's a sense of guilt and responsibility, too, that is challenging."

Jen Despins is the plaintiffs' attorney.

"They had clearly been through significant trauma. It had affected each of them and their lives going forward from that point. I was very concerned, again, as a parent and I have, you know, kids involved in extracurricular activities. And I understand that that is where they find their happiness, where they find their sense of belonging, where they find their self-esteem. That's why they go to school. I mean, that's their happiness. And this was the exact opposite for these students," Despins said.

The group of former students wants Cornwell's name removed from Bowie's performing arts center and hopes their lawsuit will force Austin ISD to institute proper training and monitoring of theatre instructors. 

The KVUE Defenders reached out to Austin ISD for comment. A district spokesperson said they aren't able to discuss ongoing investigations.  

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