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New group of Bowie High School alumni joins federal lawsuit against Austin ISD

The four former Bowie students have similar and new allegations against the school's theatre director.

AUSTIN, Texas — Editor's note: The above video is the initial KVUE Defenders report on the allegations against Betsy Cornwell, published in September 2022.

There are now new allegations against long-time Austin ISD teacher Diane "Betsy" Cornwell.

In September, the KVUE Defenders first reported claims that the Bowie High School theatre director created an unsafe and toxic environment for students. 

A group of former students, who spoke exclusively to the KVUE Defenders, sued the school district and Cornwell in federal court.

On Thursday, Jan. 12, four more former students joined the federal lawsuit against AISD.

"I feel really proud that they've come forward," said Jennifer Despins, their attorney 

Despins said while four more Bowie High School alumni are now part of the federal lawsuit against AISD, many more contacted her office, claiming they too felt abused by Cornwell.

"It's based on [AISD's] failure to provide a safe environment for the students and their failure to take any action regarding the abuse that was happening," Despins said.

The new allegations in the lawsuit include:

  • Cornwell ignored a sexual assault reported to her by a student in 2017
  • Cornwell and another teacher made students stop at a liquor store to buy alcohol during a school trip to New York in the 2003-04 school year
  • Cornwell forced a male student to sit on her lap on several occasions as she tickled and pinched him in 2015 and 2016

"I don't think any of them had realized the extent of what happened to them when they were children. They thought it was part of being in theatre," Despins said.

The new group is making similar claims as the five former Bowie High School students who first sued AISD and Cornwell back in September.

Their claims include private romance rehearsals that involved groping above and beneath clothing, using students' past traumas to trigger emotions and romance rehearsals that went too far.

Walden Hagelman is a former student from the Class of 2014 who is part of the original lawsuit.  

"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 ... 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 hand under the band of my jeans," Hagelman said.

Dana Havlin was also part of the Starlight Theatre Company and graduated from Bowie High School in 2015.

"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.

Cornwell is under investigation by AISD and district police. The district has filed motions with the court to dismiss the case.  

Through an email, an AISD spokesperson stated that they take the matter very seriously but cannot comment on an open investigation or personnel matters. 

Cornwell has declined KVUE's request for an interview but stated through an email that she has many supporters. She has yet to file an answer to the lawsuit.

Cornwell has been on paid administrative leave since last summer. She has been an AISD employee for more than 40 years, and AISD records show she makes $85,000 a year.

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