SF Art School investigates theatrical class practice that students were undressing together

The Ruth Asawa School of Art is investigating a past practice of having young theater students, regardless of age or gender, change clothes together in the same room before acting lessons.

Several students told The Examiner that students from all grades in high school stripped down to their street clothes and dressed in baggy black acting clothes in front of each other in the same room while teachers checked in attendance. They said they had no practical option to change in particular elsewhere if they wanted to avoid being late for class.

Besides feeling embarrassed and exposed, at least one student said he was sexually harassed by a classmate. San Francisco Unified School District confirmed it is investigating the co-variable time.

Earlier this school year, the RASOTA administration began an investigation when it became aware of allegations of sexual harassment that allegedly occurred during the usual shift time, an SFUSD spokeswoman said in an email last week. “We are continuing to investigate and based on our investigation to date, we believe the students have changed in a common area and, due to time constraints, have not been able to use the bathrooms. It is still unclear, and is under investigation, whether the students have other options for the change.” And they’re still on time for class.”

The onset of the pandemic in 2019, which led to school closures, ended the practice of changing clothes in common spaces. Since the school reopened, a new theater director has halted the practice by forgoing acting clothing altogether, called “fit it.” But current seniors and juniors, the last class to engage in the practice, said they are still dealing with emotional scars from invasion of privacy, conformation, and body image issues.

The School of the Arts is a competitive, test-based school for creative youth in San Francisco. The campus is located across from the Twin Peaks entrance on the northern edge of Glen Canyon Park.

Serenity, 17, was one of the students who made it to the strict theater department. (Her parents requested that only their daughter’s first name be used. All interviews with students were included with their parents’ permission.)

As a middle school student, Serenity was told during an audition that she would have to change into more tracksuits to move around easily during class, but was not told where to change. On the first day, Serenity said she entered the classroom and students of all ages had already undressed while the teachers attended.

When Serenity was asked to change there with everyone, he said “It was along the lines of: ‘This is the way it’s supposed to be.’ In my opinion, I wanted to show that I was committed to theater and that I wanted to become an actor, and I thought that changing in front of people was part of it.” If I didn’t do that, I’d be less than a theater student.”

Soon after, Serenity said that one of her classmates repeatedly approached her during the time of change and confronted her. Serenity said she tried to change in the bathroom but will be marked as late. She stopped appearing in “fits” altogether, which hurt her grades.

With the new school year returning to in-person tutoring, Serenity said she had a hard time meeting the same classmate and eventually decided to report her experience to management.

The examiner spoke to four students, who all said they sought more privacy for a change of clothes. They resorted to shortening lunchtime to change into the bathroom or change their clothes before the rest of the class went into the room. Some also said that the bathrooms and classrooms were sometimes closed, making a reliable place to change privately difficult to access.

Amalia Salamo, a current student, said she found the practice “very strange” and brought the case to the school’s main office in the fall of 2019. But nothing has changed, she said.

“They kind of acknowledged it was a problem but didn’t take any action,” said 17-year-old Salamo. “There will be children who walked and stared at you. You will draw people’s attention from all over the room. In the end, I just started wearing my normal clothes under the required clothes.”

Sophia Mirftah Khan, 17, said she slept countless times while undressing. Once, she changed quickly and accidentally exposed her chest in front of a male fellow.

“I remember being insulted and humiliated for what happened and I blamed myself,” said Mirftah Khan. “Until recently, I was like, ‘Oh my God, this wasn’t my fault. “I shouldn’t have changed in front of him in the first place. He opened up a lot of room for harassment and objections and (the officials) really tried to justify that to us.”

“Normalization” was a common word to describe the practice. Comments and looks were frequent, one student even remarking that one of his classmates had been visibly aroused one day. Perhaps the classroom doors were open, giving passersby a view.

Hannah, the 17-year-old whose father asked that only her first name be used, also thought that was just part of being a disciplined actress. As gazes flickered across the room, she found herself painfully aware of her appearance, which opened her to focus on her body image.

“Although I thought it was weird, I thought it was something we had to do,” Hannah, now a final year art school student, said. “I was always comparing myself, asking myself if I looked weird. I wanted the perfect body so people could see that. It shouldn’t happen.”

It is unclear how long this practice lasted. Michael Despars, president of the California Educational Theater Association, didn’t find a change of clothes without a privacy option common.

“I understand the students need to wear black tracksuits for their acting and movement classes,” Despars said in an email. “However, changing in the same room with teachers and other students without the option of privacy is not standard practice.”

Elizabeth Carter, director of the theater division from 2018 to 2020, did not respond to a request for comment. The current principal, Matthew Travisano, said any comments should come from the school district.

An art school parent, Matt Rudoff, notes that in the past, parents have seen students change on school tours, too. But things have changed, and the practice is shown in a new light.

“I think everyone’s eyes are open,” Rudov said. “Maybe they were shutting it down before. I feel like the current department there under the new director is taking this matter directly.”

Mirftah Khan agreed that Travisano was working to bring about a needed cultural shift and was struggling with the harm caused by the practice, including requiring students to provide impact statements. But she feels the administration has failed to act when students, as it did last August, come forward to tell the school official that it is “completely inappropriate.”

“What I was saying was acknowledged but nothing was done,” said Mirftah Khan, echoing Salamu.

Students think of past politics as part of District-wide demands from students to improve responses for allegations of sexual assault and harassment. Students at the School of the Arts, Lowell High School, and Lincoln High School have organized protests, demanding transparency about the reporting process, the creation of support systems for survivors, more physical and mental support, and more.

For the case for the theater department, students seek acknowledgment that it should not have happened and that it will not happen again.

“At the time, I didn’t know what was wrong with that,” Serenity said. “We were just kids, a group of kids changing in a room with a group of old people. There is no excuse for that.”

[email protected]

Write a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *