Head theatre director placed on paid administrative leave after allegations of inappropriate misconduct leads to lawsuit


Mars Canepa

The new Performing Arts Center has “The Betsy” displayed across the front of the building.

Editorial Team

A civil lawsuit filed on Thursday, Sept. 29 targeted Bowie’s head theatre director Diane Elizabeth “Betsy” Cornwell, and accuses her of sexual harassment, potential drug coercion, and emotional and verbal abuse. Currently, Cornwell is on paid administrative leave while Austin Independent School District (AISD) investigates the allegations made by the former Bowie Starlight Theatre Company (STC) members. 

As Bowie’s renovation from the 2017 AISD Bond came to an end this summer, it included a new Performing Arts Center. The facility was named after Cornwell, with “The Betsy” displayed across the front of the building. The naming of the building resulted in multiple former students coming forth with their experiences in the STC.

According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs include former Bowie students Walden Hagelman (26), Sarah Andrews (28), Andie Haddad (27), Dana Havlin (25), and Erika De Los Santos (age unavailable) who are suing both Cornwell and AISD.  

The plaintiffs detail multiple events in the lawsuit that chronicle their time in the STC program with allegations of inappropriate touching, lessons that included students being expected to share traumatic events from their lives, and encouraging students to be physically intimate with each other.

Alumni Austin Civatte, who withdrew from Bowie before graduating in 2020, was affected by a specific unit in class. 

“The biggest thing for me that everyone who goes through the feeder program at Bowie can relate to is a unit she teaches called Emotional Recall,” Civatte said. “And it was an experience that lasted, I want to say several weeks, because we would sit in a circle and just all of us would sob. There were people that couldn’t even get their next words out because they were crying and just heaving so intensely and you know, we would hug and we would give them tissues, but what kind of education is that when that student has a chemistry final the next period?”

Cornwell has been head theatre director at Bowie since it opened in 1988, but was placed on leave on Thursday, Aug. 11. 

“I came into her office and I started to open up to her and I got a  little choked up because I was extremely depressed at the time,” Civatte said.  “She chuckled a bit and shook her head, she looked me in the eyes and said, ‘It’s not like you were really depressed, you know, it’s not like you’re on medication or anything,’ while I was currently on antidepressant medication. I just ended the conversation as soon as I could. And that day, I finalized plans to leave the school and I did not finish my senior year at Bowie.”

According to the Lawsuit, AISD’s refusal to act upon the complaints in a timely manner has shown violation of “Title IX” in the Education Amendments of 1972. According to the United States Department of Education, Title IX requires schools to publish grievances that students file concerning complaints of sex discrimination, sexual  harrasment, and/or sexual violence.

“She’s in a position of power, so all of these awful things that are happening are just things that we laugh off and things that we don’t take too seriously,” Civatte said. “And I’m extremely proud of the bravery of the four students that did speak out.”

The Dispatch contacted AISD and has yet to hear a response as of publication. Dispatch staff also reached out to Bowie principal Mark Robinson, who said he was unable to discuss personnel matters.

“All the information you know is what we know,” Robinson said.

The Bowie administration did alert teachers on Friday that counselors were available for students and faculty who may need support during this time.