Diane “Betsy” Cornwell was effusive in a 1980 article in the Austin American-Statesman, talking about the joys of watching drama students perform. Then a teacher at Lyndon B. Johnson High School in Austin, she told the reporter that watching them felt like witnessing “the kindling of their enjoyment of performance and creation.”
In 1988, Cornwell moved to the newly created James Bowie High School, where she ran the theater department for more than 30 years. During her tenure, that spirit and enthusiasm for the theater was sapped from many of her students: According to federal and state lawsuits filed by multiple former students, Cornwell subjected them to emotional abuse, encouraged them to perform sexual acts on each other in front of her, and created a hostile educational environment as the leader of the school’s Starlight Theater Company. Conditions were so bad, the complaints allege, that several of the students contemplated suicide during high school, with at least two hospitalized for suicidal ideation.
Nine former students have sued the Austin Independent School District (AISD) in the federal lawsuit, under Title IX of the Civil Rights Act. Three of the nine also filed in state court, suing Cornwell personally for alleged indecency with a child and sexual performance of a child, both violations of state law.
In their lawsuit filings, the plaintiffs in both suits describe closed-door rehearsals where Cornwell would encourage students to be intimate in front of her, other exercises in which students were made to recall traumatic experiences in front of their classmates, and instances of Cornwell inappropriately touching and tickling students. One plaintiff alleges that Cornwell, out of the blue, kissed her on the lips before a performance, and others allege that Cornwell—along with fellow teachers Kris Andrews and Marco Bazan—mishandled reports of sexual harassment and assaults within the theater department.
“You are told and taught what to do when another child bullies you, but nobody gives you the tools for what to do when a teacher is doing that,” said Sarah Andrews, a plaintiff in the federal lawsuit. Andrews served as the theater company’s co-president during the 2011-12 school year. In the suit, she recalls “a constant barrage of abuse.”
When students or parents would complain to Cornwell or school officials, the lawsuits allege, students feared retaliation from Cornwell.
But what finally drove these former students to file suit was the 2022 decision by the Austin ISD Board of Trustees to name the high school’s performing arts building after Cornwell, whose name had become “synonymous with the program.” That’s according to a resolution written by the school’s Campus Advisory Council—a group of parents, students, and community members who advise the district on campus performance and improvements, as mandated by the Texas Education Code. The resolution, which came before the school board’s final decision, gushed over Cornwell’s performance in running “one of the largest and most prolific theater programs in the state” and bringing the district “national and international recognition.” It stated that Cornwell had “taught and mentored thousands of students … encouraging them to be fine arts advocates and good citizens of the world.” According to the resolution, Cornwell has produced nearly 1,000 shows as an AISD teacher.
The push to name the building for Cornwell garnered significant support at first: The district got more than 200 responses when they asked for testimonials in support of Cornwell’s honor. But some of Cornwell’s former students viewed their experiences in a different light. The building dedication weighed on Andrews for months. One day, she revisited her old journals from that time in her life, and the extent of the mistreatment finally crystallized for her. “I was so shocked reading my journals for the first time as an adult,” Andrews said. “At just how bad it was and how awful I felt, and to read the words that I had written down as I had gone through it.”
Cornwell was placed on administrative leave by the district after the lawsuits were filed, but counsel for the district refused to confirm whether she was still on paid leave as of July. Cornwell declined to comment for this story via her lawyer, who confirmed she was still employed by the district in June.
Now, as these former students wait to see if the courts are on their side, they try as adults to fully understand what they experienced years ago as high school students.
James Bowie High School is massive, sprawling across 60 acres in southwest Travis County, with 200 employees and nearly 3,000 students. “Being in such a big school, it made having a department where you knew everybody really grounding,” said Rose Collins, a 2019 graduate of JBHS and another plaintiff in the federal suit.
For Collins and hundreds of other students, this landing place was the theater department, with the glitzy moniker the “Starlight Theater Company.” This was Cornwell’s domain, and her tenure brought a fair amount of acclaim to the department and the district: The theater company won several awards for “Best Play” at University Interscholastic League (UIL) contests and became the first in the state to travel to the American High School Theatre Festival in Scotland.
Cornwell’s theater department was fairly close-knit, in no small part because to succeed in the Starlight Theater Company, students had to devote considerable time and energy to it. Collins, who spent much of their time in the company devoted to the technical side of things—stage management, light design, sound design—remembers students putting a framed copy of child labor laws on the wall in the tech booth. They would use dry-erase markers to check off all of the laws broken during hours-long rehearsals.
“The teachers within the department were like, ‘Well, this is the kind of work you have to do if you want to make it in theater,’” Collins said. “If you’re not working all the time, how are people going to see that you’re dedicated?” Collins said professional theater companies are actually far less taxing.
The culture was ingrained in the program by the time Collins arrived. A 1996 article in the Statesman reported that students had taken to “what they laughingly call ‘slave labor’” in order to raise money for the department.
Former students say this community, while extremely tight, was pernicious. The rumor mill churned, with students and teachers alike spreading gossip. Teachers turned favorite seniors into their de facto assistants, and it was considered an honor. Cornwell would post notes for all to see about students missing the mark during rehearsals or talking backstage.
Despite these conditions, leaving the department was a cardinal sin. Collins stepped back from the program during their senior year, and to this day, there are people who won’t interact with them on social media because they left the program. “I feel like I also took part in that as well,” Collins said. “There were people who left, and it’s like, ‘Well, they’re not dedicated enough, so we don’t talk to them. They’re not in the culture anymore, regardless of how many hours they put in.’”
Collins said they didn’t fully understand the extent of the damage until after high school. When talking about JBHS to college professors, “I got a lot of shocked faces, a lot of ‘Hey, let’s put you in the direction of the counseling department.’” But Cornwell was an institution. She had even taught Collins’ own mother, who was part of the first graduating class of JBHS.
The federal action, originally filed last year in the Western District Court of Texas, alleges the school district violated Title IX, which protects students from sex-based discrimination and harassment. The complaint said the district continued to employ Cornwell despite being made aware of her “inappropriate and dangerous behavior with students.” The state suit, filed by Walden Hagelman, Andie Haddad, and Dana Havlin, accuses Cornwell of indecency with a child and multiple counts of sexual performance of a child.
Some of this alleged behavior took place during “intimacy rehearsals.” These sometimes happened in front of other students, but at other times moved behind closed doors.
At 17, Haddad, a 2013 Bowie graduate and a plaintiff in the federal and state suits, was cast as Abigail in a performance of The Crucible opposite a male classmate, who played John Proctor. According to the state lawsuit, during rehearsal, Cornwell instructed the pair to practice being intimate—kissing and groping—in front of their castmates. The state lawsuit states Cornwell egged the pair on, allegedly yelling, “more, more, more!” until Haddad and her scene partner were rolling around on the floor onstage, emulating sex. According to the federal complaint, Cornwell told the other students to “yell” and “jeer” at them.
“The constant devaluing of my self-worth resulted from the environment in high school theater and having an adult tell me, ‘We’re going to put your body into this situation with another person for your peers to watch—don’t care how you feel about it.’ I dissociated for a long time after that, when I was intimate in my own personal relationships,” Haddad told the Texas Observer.
Hagelman, who participated in the theater company from 2010-2014, and a male student were cast as spouses in a one-act play when she was 17. Cornwell called the two students into a private nighttime rehearsal onstage in the darkened theater. Cornwell sat in the front row and instructed the students to work on their onstage kiss, telling them it looked too “juvenile,” the state complaint says. Addressing Hagelman’s scene partner, the teacher allegedly told him how to kiss and hold her body, instructing him to “press her closer, to push his hips into her back, to run his hands up and down her torso,” the suit says. Urging him to go further, Cornwell allegedly told the male student to “prove” that he was sexually attracted to Hagelman. He responded by putting his hands under her shirt and down her pants, groping her without her consent, the suit alleges.
According to the state lawsuit, Cornwell then “beamed and clapped, telling Ms. Hagelman and her scene partner that she finally believed that her scene partner ‘sexually desired’ [Hagelman] and that they had done a good job.” The suit then claims that Cornwell called Hagelman over and pulled her into her lap and placed her hand on her upper thigh. “Cornwell proceeded to rub [Hagelman’s] back, telling her that she had “made [her] proud” and that [she] had proven that Cornwell’s trust in her had not been misplaced,” the suit says. Hagelman had been sexually assaulted by a former theater member just months before, and she told the Observer this experience heightened the trauma.
“Part of the issue is the escalation,” Hagelman told the Observer. “She was pressing us and forcing us. It didn’t feel like a choice at any time, and it was never just kissing. … It was genuinely this constant escalation into almost-sex. … It becomes a lot harder to understand consent when that is one of your first sexual experiences, and that follows you.”
Havlin, federal and state plaintiff and 2015 Bowie graduate, recalls, as a 16-year-old junior, being cast in a leading role opposite a senior boy. She was called into a private rehearsal, where Cornwell wanted the pair to practice kissing. She instructed the pair to kiss “passionately,” to roll around on the floor together while kissing. She told Havlin to open her legs. “Cornwell instructed them to pretend to be having sex,” the state lawsuit says. “[Havlin] was mortified and in pain from rolling around on the floor with her scene partner, but she complied with Cornwell’s demands and spread her legs wider. The simulated sex demanded by [Cornwell] included over the clothes touching of [Havlin’s] genitals.”
This was Havlin’s first kiss. According to the state lawsuit, this experience “coupled with Cornwell’s manipulation and verbal and emotional abuse” led to Havlin’s hospitalization for suicidal ideation within a year.
Andrea Grapko is an intimacy professional who works with high school and college-aged performers in Austin, and she said boundaries and consent are crucial to choreographing intimate scenes. She makes sure actors can tap out of a scene if they need to, and she eases actors into the physical aspects, providing alternatives if the actors aren’t comfortable. She said she’d never be alone in a room working with the actors—she’d always have someone else like a stage manager, a director, or some of the production staff present.
While Grapko’s field is relatively new to the theater mainstream—the first intimacy training organization was established in 2015—she said people in the theater space have long recognized the need for more training and intentionality when putting actors into physical situations.
According to the suits, Cornwell’s behavior occasionally turned physical. In the federal complaint, Andrews recalls being backstage before a UIL competition performance. She said Cornwell approached her and two other students before they went on stage. The lawsuit alleges that Cornwell kissed Andrews and the male student next to her on the lips, then slapped the other student across the face.
While only a select few of Cornwell’s students were pulled into intimacy rehearsals, every student who passed through her Theater II class was graded on so-called “emotional recall exercises,” during which students told Cornwell and their peers about “physical attacks, attempted suicides, eating disorders, sexual assaults, medical traumas, the death of loved ones,” per the federal complaint.
According to Collins, students who recounted painful memories received favorable grades and more attention from Cornwell. The stakes were incredibly high, as the class was “the deciding point for what you were going to do and who you were going to be for the rest of your high school career in that theater company,” according to Andrews. She remembers having her theater class at the end of the school day, and being completely “useless” due to anxiety for the whole day leading up to it.
Havlin knew what story she would tell. Her father had died by suicide less than a year before. “There wasn’t a choice in my mind. In her [Cornwell’s] mind, that was the story that needed to be told. … I just knew that if I cried enough, then I would secure my spot. She wouldn’t pick on me.”
Hagelman said she was made to kneel in front of her peers and count every rib she could feel after recounting her experience with an eating disorder. She was forced to do this because she was having trouble crying during the exercise, she said. “That was the only ‘B’ I ever got in my high school career.”
Other students were brought into these exercises to heighten the drama: Federal plaintiff Erika De Los Santos recalls in the suit being instructed to block a closet door while a student was forced inside after speaking about being trapped in a closet by her father.
Grapko, the outside intimacy professional, said emotional recall practices are controversial in the theater world. The practice of having actors draw on their own histories and emotions for their acting originated in the mid-20th century and was commonplace for a while, but Grapko said she doesn’t know of anyone who still teaches emotional recall today “because of the potential danger.”
“You’re asking people to relive their personal traumas. We’re not therapists, we’re not psychologists. We’re just trying to find tools to access consistent acting techniques,” Grapko said.
Plaintiffs’ lawyer Jen Despins said she had originally warned the former students about potential backlash for coming forward. But the response after they filed was unanimous, she said. “Everything we heard corroborated what they said,” Despins said. “We heard from many people. And the stories all had the same undertone, the same level of toxicity and manipulation and turning a blind eye by the school, knowing, and ignoring.”
The school district and Cornwell have attempted to get these lawsuits thrown out.
The federal case relies on Title IX, which does not have an explicit statute of limitations. However, Texas courts have held that the statute of limitations for personal injury claims—two years—should apply in Title IX cases as well. The federal complaint filed by the former students claims the district’s decision to rename the school reopened old wounds—that only in 2022 did the plaintiffs “reconnect and realize that their individualized experiences were part of a broader failure on the part of AISD.”
While the district’s lawyer declined to comment on the lawsuits for this story, officials have filed dozens of pages of responses in federal court. Their attorneys have claimed the district can’t be held liable because of its status as a governmental entity, because the plaintiffs raised their concerns too late, and because Cornwell didn’t discriminate against male or female students in her alleged abuse. “One of the Plaintiffs is male, who complains of abuse and harassment originating in the Theatre, just like the other female Plaintiffs allege,” the district’s January motion to dismiss read. “Furthermore, the facts alleged demonstrate Cornwell treated both female and male students alike.”
Cornwell’s lawyer argued in state court that she was immune from liability because she was working “within the scope or duties” of her position as a theater director and exercising “judgment or discretion.”
“lt is farcical to contend that [Cornwell] was acting in the course and scope of her professional duties when she scheduled ‘intimacy sessions’ after school hours, turned off the hallway lights, locked the theater doors so no one could enter, and ordered male students to molest the Plaintiffs,” lawyers for the alumni fired back in a state court filing.
After a state district court judge denied Cornwell’s motion to throw out the case, she appealed to the Third Court of Appeals. The appellate court has not yet taken any action. The federal suit has not come to trial.
Hagelman, who has been at the helm of much of the advocacy work regarding the cases, discovered something when speaking with other alumni: They all vividly remembered the denim loveseat in Cornwell’s office, its texture, its placement. It was where they sat when being chastised by Cornwell or forced to listen to voice messages from other students’ parents who had called to complain about what went on in the department. “We didn’t know it at the time, but that’s called grounding,” Havlin said. “Focusing on textures, remembering colors—it’s a trauma response. It’s a coping mechanism.”
During high school, many of the plaintiffs experienced extreme declines in their mental health. “I remember talking to a really close family friend. They were like, ‘By the time you left high school, you had such a big rain cloud over your head. You were just a different person,’” Andrews said. “And I certainly felt like a different person, but [theater] was the most important thing we could do.”
It wasn’t always like this for the plaintiffs. The theater was once where they felt most comfortable.
Haddad discovered her place onstage in fifth grade, in a circus musical about clowns of all things. Havlin’s parents enrolled her at the prestigious ZACH Theater in Austin after she performed in her fourth-grade musical. Andrews, who also trained at the ZACH Theater, had caught the bug early—her aunt had given her a best of Andrew Lloyd Webber CD when she was in kindergarten.
Havlin remembers telling her peers at the ZACH theater that it was what she wanted to pursue as a career. But while she felt energized by her training there, her time in Bowie’s program pulled her the other way. “ZACH was inherently the more serious theater work that I was doing. But Bowie … took up so much more of my mindspace. I had this healthy theater environment and then this other one that just caused me so much stress. … If I hadn’t been in the theater program at Bowie, I probably would have a career in entertainment in some way.” Havlin left the theater company before senior year, after her mother told her she had to quit because of how it was affecting her mental health.
It’s been about a decade since Andrews has done any shows. She said her time at Bowie “took the element of safety and joy and acceptance away from [theater] in a way that I have yet to bounce back from, even though theater and the arts is truly my lifeblood. I don’t love anything the way that I love theater.”
For De Los Santos, her time in the Starlight Theatre Company was completely chilling. “I loved [theater] so much. And after I had my experience in high school, I didn’t touch acting again,” she said.
Many of the plaintiffs say they still struggle with mental and physical health effects of Cornwell’s treatment. Collins has suffered from insomnia since high school, when they would regularly stay at rehearsals until 11 p.m., do homework for their AP classes until 4 a.m., then have to be back at school by 7 a.m. The state suit claims that students often spent 12 hours a day at school, “with most of that time in theater.”
Havlin said she’s still on her “journey of healing from the actual health problems this person inflicted.”
Haddad realized how much of the stress of high school theater she carried with her into the workplace as an adult. “When I first started my career … when I would get feedback, I wouldn’t hear the good things. I would only hear the bad things and I would obsess over those,” Haddad said. And I would like, beat myself up, run myself into the ground, trying to fix them and then be burnt out, exhausted. And so I wasn’t actually fixing anything. That’s because of how I was taught to hear feedback as a child.”
The alumni in these suits, now far in time from when the alleged abuse occurred, are asking for several things, including monetary damages in the state suit. They want Cornwell’s name stripped from the district building, and they want intimacy training in the school’s theater department to protect future students from being traumatized.
De Los Santos is now an instructor herself, and she said she always prioritizes her students’ mental health. She said it’s made her realize just how damaging Cornwell’s behavior—namely the emotional recall exercises—really were.
“I would never do that as an educator,” she said.