Theater teacher directed students to ‘have sex’ in front of her, Texas lawsuit states

The theater director at James Bowie High School, not pictured, was sued by some of her former students.

The theater director at James Bowie High School, not pictured, was sued by some of her former students.

Rob Laughter via Unsplash

The director of a Texas high school theater program has been sued by a group of students, who accuse the teacher of leading a “sexually abusive environment,” according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit was filed on Friday, Jan. 20, by three former students at James Bowie High School in Austin. The same alumni and six others also initially sued Austin Independent School District in the fall of 2022.

Diane Elizabeth “Betsy” Cornwell, the longtime theater director at the school, was placed on paid administrative leave following the first lawsuit as the district began investigating, the Austin American-Statesman reported in October.

During theater production rehearsals, Cornwell forced the students “to engage in open-mouth kissing, groping and simulated sexual intercourse,” according to the lawsuit. These ”intimacy sessions,’ the former students say, “were nothing more than choreographed sexual assaults.”

Some of the former students said Cornwell was “aroused” during the rehearsals and at one point yelled, “More, more, more!” as scene partners were lying on the floor and kissing, the lawsuit states.

Cornwell told KVUE on Tuesday, Jan. 24, she had not yet been served the lawsuit. The school district declined to comment on the initial lawsuit last fall to KVUE and the American-Statesman.

Groping, lap dances and simulated sex

Cornwell has been the director of the school’s theater program — the Starlight Theatre Company — since 1988. The school’s fine arts center was named after her in August, with the Austin high school saying Cornwell “has given so much to students for so many years.”

While Cornwell has been celebrated by the district, some former students said Cornwell’s actions caused them humiliation, extreme anxiety and anguish. One student, because of her experiences in Cornwell’s rehearsals, was hospitalized with suicidal thoughts, according to the lawsuit.

The alumni detailed the alleged accounts of sexual abuse they experienced while in the theater program.

Two students said they were cast as a Vietnamese sex worker in the school’s productions of “Miss Saigon.” In the role, the students were “forced to give lap dances and imitate sexual acts” on male classmates, the lawsuit states.

Other students were groped, with male students fondling the breasts of their cast partner under the guidance of Cornwell, the alumni allege.

Despite Cornwell’s direction for the students to “have sex” in front of her, they often felt compelled to carry out her orders.

“They knew that if they did not do exactly what she told them to do, Cornwell would retaliate against them in a multitude of ways, including refusing to cast them in roles, blacklisting them from leadership positions and targeting them for increased abuse in front of their peers,” according to the lawsuit.

The alumni are seeking monetary relief of more than $1 million, as well as compensatory damages for past and future physical and mental suffering.

Federal lawsuit amended this month

A federal lawsuit against the school district, originally filed in September by five former students, has been amended to include four additional alumni.

The nine students, who attended the high school between 2004 and 2019, allege Cornwell subjected them to “inappropriate touching; inappropriate sexual comments; harmful and abusive language; assault; battery; emotional and psychological abuse and manipulation; allowing sexual assaults to happen under her direction; declining to remove or otherwise discipline perpetrators of same; and her provision of drugs to at least one student.”

Multiple students complained to the district about Cornwell, who they say later targeted and embarrassed them by playing phone messages from parents complaining, according to the federal lawsuit.

The students chose to sue after the district named the theater after her.

“This public praise of Cornwell allowed (the alumni) to revisit their damaging experiences as children at the hands of Cornwell, prompting them to finally recognize as adults the abuse they suffered and (the school district’s) role in recklessly disregarding it,” attorneys said.

The nine alumni are requesting Cornwell’s name be removed from the theater and for the hiring of intimacy coordinators. They also seek monitoring of the theater program and harassment awareness training.

Mike Stunson covers real-time news for McClatchy. He is a 2011 Western Kentucky University graduate who has previously worked at the Paducah Sun and Madisonville Messenger as a sports reporter and the Lexington Herald-Leader as a breaking news reporter.
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