A group of three former students from James Bowie High School in Austin Independent School District are suing Diane Elizabeth “Betsy” Cornwell, the director of the high school theater program, for allegedly leading a “sexually abusive environment.”
The former students filed the lawsuit on January 20 this year, following a federal lawsuit the same group of alumni students and several others filed against Austin ISD in October of last year.
The initial lawsuit came after Austin ISD announced their decision to name the James Bowie High School Fine Arts Center after Cornwell.
So happy to honor our long time Theater teacher, Elizabeth Cornwell, by naming our new Fine Arts Center after her.
She has given so much to students for so many years. Congratulations! pic.twitter.com/qRLbOV4hbj
— Bowie High School (@AISDBowie) August 8, 2022
Cornwell has been the director of the high school’s theater program, the Starlight Theater Company, for more than 30 years.
According to the alumni lawsuit, Cornwell continually selected specifically “racially and sexually inappropriate musicals” for her theater classes to perform. She allegedly encouraged students to “get more intimate” during rehearsals. According to some of the students, she led private “intimacy rehearsals” for scene partners behind a locked door.
“During intimacy rehearsals, Cornwell called students into a special session in the evening and directed them to ‘have sex,’ meaning they had to practice whatever sexual conduct Cornwell desired for their roles,” the lawsuit alleges. “Cornwell would force the minor students to engage in open-mouth kissing, groping, and simulated sexual intercourse in order to ‘convince her’ that they sexually desired each other.”
Some of the alumni detailed specific instances where Cornwell was distinctly “aroused” during their rehearsals. As the students groped and kissed each other, Cornwell would cheer them on, encouraging them to “increase their level of passion” and make it look “more realistic.”
One of the former students, Ms. Andie Haddad, recalled a moment during a rehearsal where she and her scene partner were required to lay on the floor in the middle of her castmates with the lights off and were instructed to kiss and grope each other.
Haddad claims that the scene aroused Cornwell, even to the point that the instructor began yelling, “More, more, more!” at Haddad and her partner.
Meanwhile, Cornwell would instruct the other cast members to “jeer” and “insult” the students within the circle.
Following this specific rehearsal, Haddad said that Cornwell pulled her into her office to “berate” her, calling her a “slut” and telling her she was “dirty,” saying that “the only way people would love her is if she used her body.”
Another alumnus, Ms. Dana Havlin, was cast as a Vietnamese sex worker for a play Cornwell had chosen, the STC’s production of “Miss Saigon.”
Havlin recalled that Cornwell forced her to “give lap dances and imitate sexual acts” on the male cast members on multiple occasions.
According to the lawsuit, “Upon information and belief, this stage performance was so graphically sexual that complaints were made to Bowie High School and to the AISD Superintendent.”
Havlin explained that, during private, intimate rehearsals, Cornwell would have her and her male partner recite lines back and forth to warm up, then she pressured them to kiss every few words, then Cornwell decided that this was not enough and required the two to begin kissing more passionately, telling them to kiss “with open mouths using their tongues.”
The lawsuit alleges that this was still not enough for Cornwell, who then instructed Havlin and her scene partner to lie on the floor to kiss more passionately, telling them that they’d had enough of rehearsing lines.
Havlin alleges that Cornwell instructed the two to start rolling around on the floor as they kissed.
The only time Cornwell made them stop was to instruct them on how to have a more “realistic” sex scene, telling the two students that “the man’s legs go between the woman’s.” She then told Havlin to spread her legs further and keep going harder.
“Ms. 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 lawsuit alleges. “The simulated sex demanded by Defendant [Cornwell] included over the clothes touching of Ms. Havlin’s genitals. Ms. Havlin believed that Cornwell was aroused by watching the performance.”
Some alumni recall Cornwell herself touching and interacting inappropriately with students during rehearsals. Each of the students in the lawsuit recall instances of Cornwell “touching male students in a way that made them uncomfortable.”
The lawsuit alleges that Cornwell would give herself the responsibility of doing the male cast members’ stage make-up, painting abs on the boys and “tickling them as she did so.”
The students explained that “Cornwell would inappropriately touch students at other times as well, including making them sit on her lap and stroking them and pinching them.”
Other former students recall similar experiences that involved Cornwell mentally and verbally abusing them, and “instruct[ing] sexual assault” be done to them.
A total of nine James Bowie High School alumni are part of the original lawsuit from October to force the school district to remove Cornwell’s name from the fine arts center. As a result of the lawsuit, Cornwell was placed on paid administrative leave last year. However, Cornwell was dropped from the federal lawsuit, so three of the original nine alumni have filed this latest lawsuit against Cornwell individually.
For this lawsuit, the students are seeking compensatory damage and monetary relief of more than $1,000,000 for Cornwell’s actions.
Texas Scorecard attempted to contact Cornwell, but has not received comment.