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'It's just inexcusable and it's heartbreaking' | More former Bowie High School students talk about alleged abuse in federal lawsuit against Austin ISD

New allegations have surfaced against Bowie's theatre director, Diane "Betsy" Cornwell.

AUSTIN, Texas — More legal issues are surfacing for the Austin Independent School District (AISD) and a long-time drama teacher.

We are now hearing from two former Bowie High School students who joined a federal lawsuit against AISD in January.

In September, the KVUE Defenders first reported on a group of former Bowie High School students suing theatre director, Diane "Betsy" Cornwell and AISD.

While Cornwell was dropped from the federal suit, a new lawsuit was filed against her in state district court in January.

But the updated federal lawsuit still claims Cornwell created an unsafe and toxic environment for students, subjected them to private romance rehearsals and inappropriately touched them.     

Cornwell has been on paid leave since the allegations came out in August. New claims against Cornwell have now surfaced that include assault and failure to report sexual assault.

The latter allegation stems from Bowie alumni, Rose Collins, one of four former students to join the federal lawsuit in January.

The now 21-year-old said she came forward after seeing the original group of former students tell the KVUE Defenders in September about their experiences with Cornwell.

"I remember my friends and I kind of cheering ... like legitimately getting very excited, seeing that something was happening ... Dang, we didn't realize there were so many people who also had these experiences," Collins said.

Collins was part of the Starlight Theatre Company at Bowie High School from 2015 to 2019.

The lawsuit claims Collins "was sexually assaulted by another student" in the theatre group and that Cornwell declined to remove or otherwise discipline that student.

"So we were spending most days after school together, and he would come up and grab my boobs and my butt in and out of the rehearsal space and just really make me uncomfortable," Collins said.

Collins said she told the student to stop, but he didn't.

The suit claims that when Cornwell, another theatre director and the school counselor discovered the sexual assaults, Collins said she was told by the counselor that her only option was to file a police report.  

"If I didn't want to take it to the police, then I would just have to put up with it," Collins said.

Collins said she didn't feel comfortable going to the police because she enjoyed theatre too much and feared retribution from Cornwell.

Collins also said Cornwell forced her to continue working alongside the student who groped her.

It took a toll.

"I know that my family saw a rapid decline in [my] mental health starting in my freshman year that I don't think I really recovered from until I graduated. There was a long period of suicidal thoughts and ideation," Collins said.

Sarah Alessandro said she can relate. Alessandro said she joined the federal lawsuit after seeing others come forward.

"I actually learned about it through the KVUE article ... your first interview with the first group of people," Alessandro said.

The lawsuit details her experience with Cornwell and Bowie's Starlight Theatre Company from 2007 to 2011.

"I think my experience in the theater department was stressful and felt very toxic," Alessandro said.

Like other plaintiffs, Alessandro remembered Cornwell's emotional recall exercises. According to the lawsuit, these exercises forced students to use past traumas to trigger raw emotions in front of their peers.

"Often leading to the person having a full-on emotional breakdown, as in my case," Alessandro said.

Alessandro said she broke down after sharing her mother's suicide attempt.

"I think it's deplorable. I think it's awful. And it's one of those things that I think back on and have a hard time even believing that it really happened," Alessandro said.

Kaitlin Hopkins is the head of musical theatre at Texas State University

"It's just inexcusable, and it's heartbreaking that these young teenage kids were put through that type of abuse is, is really shocking," Hopkins said.

Hopkins is also an award-winning actor, director and producer who has been in film, television and Broadway for more than 30 years. She also works as an art consultant worldwide.

Hopkins said she's stunned to see more students come forward with allegations against Cornwell – allegations like private romance rehearsals.

"There's no such thing as a romance rehearsal. Let's start with that. You know, I mean, you don't ask students to kiss, to grope each other, to simulate sex. You sure as heck don't do that in an environment where the lights are off and the doors are locked and pretend that that's somehow appropriate under some sort of acting pedagogy. I mean, you wouldn't do that with professional actors," Hopkins said.

Alessandro also claims that during a rehearsal, "Cornwell intentionally tripped" Alessandro, "pulling her off the stage and onto the floor by her ankles as Cornwell laughed hysterically."

"I was scared and really confused, and she was laughing while she did it too," Alessandro said.

A total of nine former students are now suing AISD, demanding the district make several changes including requiring proper training and monitoring theatre instructors and removing Cornwell's name from Bowie's new performing arts center.

Bowie High School tweeted a picture of Cornwell posing with the facility named for her in August of last year which triggered the original group of former students to sue.

In September, Andie Haddad told us how driving by her alma mater on Slaughter Lane in South Austin is hard.

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

Haddad was among a group of former Bowie High School students who spoke exclusively to the KVUE Defenders about their experiences with Cornwell. 

Walden Hagelman was another. She described one private rehearsal with Cornwell that 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 ... 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.

In January, Hagelman, Haddad and Dana Havlin filed a new lawsuit against Cornwell. This time in state district court.

For a better understanding of the state and federal laws involved in the lawsuits, the Defenders asked two independent experts to weigh in: employment and civil rights attorney, Austin Kaplan, and Texas Advocacy Project CEO, Heather Bellino. Neither is involved in the lawsuits.  

Let's start with the most recent lawsuit filed in state district court. In it, Hagelman, Haddad and Havlin claim Cornwell violated two state laws: indecency with a child and sexual performance of a child.  

Kaplan said both criminal codes have lengthy statutes of limitations.  In fact, there is no statute of limitation for prosecuting someone for indecency with a child.

"You can be prosecuted for indecency with a child, OK, even if it took years or decades to discover. And the other one, sexual performance by a child, that one is essentially 20 years from the child's 18th birthday, in terms of criminal prosecution," Kaplan said.

The federal lawsuit states that AISD created a hostile educational environment created by the district's lack of policies, procedures and a failed Title IX reporting system.  

Bellino said under Title IX, teachers and administrators are required to follow a set of guidelines once a student reports a sexual assault to them. Those guidelines include reporting a student's allegation to authorities.

"There are things that the institution must do to be held accountable. And if they don't do that, then there are consequences," Bellino said.

Among the possible consequences for Title IX violations is loss of funding. 

The KVUE Defenders have reached out to AISD and Cornwell. A district spokesperson wouldn't answer questions but said they take this matter very seriously. The district and district police are investigating.  

An attorney for Cornwell said she is prohibited from speaking about this. Cornwell has been on paid leave since August before school started. Records show her salary is $85,000 a year. She has been with the district for more than 40 years.

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