SF Art School investigates the practice of drama classes where students undress together
The Ruth Asawa School of the Arts is studying an earlier practice of asking young theater students, regardless of age or gender, to change clothes together in the same room before acting lessons.
Students in all grades in the high school stripped of their street clothes and donned loose, black actor clothes in front of each other in the same room as teachers checked attendance, several students told The Examiner. They said they had no practical option to change to private elsewhere if they wanted to avoid being marked late for class.
In addition to feeling embarrassed and exposed, at least one student said he was sexually harassed by a classmate. The San Francisco Unified School District has confirmed that it is investigating the common time change.
âEarlier this school year, the RASOTA administration began investigating when it learned of an allegation of sexual harassment that allegedly took place during the period of joint change,â said SFUSD spokeswoman Laura Dudnick, in an email last week. âWe are continuing to investigate and based on our investigation to date, we believe that the students have moved into a common space and, due to time constraints, have not been able to use the restroom. It is not clear, and still being investigated, whether students had other options to change and always be on time in class.
The emergence of the pandemic in 2019, which resulted in school closures, ended the practice of changing clothes in common spaces. Since the school reopened, a new theater director has ended the practice by completely dispensing with acting outfits, known as âfitsâ. But the current seniors and juniors, the last class to participate in the practice, said they still accept the emotional scars caused by invasion of privacy, objectification and body image issues.
The School of the Arts is a competitive audition-based school for young creatives in San Francisco. The campus is across from the entrance to Twin Peaks at the north end of Glen Canyon Park.
Serenity, 17, was a student who managed to get into the rigorous drama department. (Her parents requested that only their daughter’s first name be used. All student interviews were included with permission from their parents.)
As a middle school student, Serenity was told during the audition that she should put on more athletic clothes for easy movement during class, but she was not told where to change. On the first day, Serenity said she walked into the classroom and students of all ages were already stripped naked as teachers took attendance.
When told to change over there with everyone, Serenity said, âIt was like, ‘This is how it’s supposed to be. In my head, I wanted to show that I was engaged in the theater and that I wanted to be an actor, and I thought that changing in front of people was part of that. If I didn’t, I would be less of a theater student.
Soon after, however, Serenity said that a classmate approached her several times during the period of change and grazed her. Serenity said she tried to change in the bathroom, but would be reported to be late. She has completely stopped presenting with “convulsions” which further affects her grades.
With the new school year returning to in-person teaching, Serenity said she struggled to meet the same classmate and ultimately decided to report her experience to administration.
The examiner spoke to four students, all of whom said they were looking for more privacy to change clothes. They had to cut their lunches short to change in the bathroom or to change clothes before the rest of the class entered the room. Bathrooms and classrooms were also sometimes locked, making a reliable place to change in private difficult to find, some said.
A current elder, Amalya Salamo, said she found the practice “very strange” and raised the issue at the school’s main office in the fall of 2019. But nothing has changed, she said. .
“They kind of recognized it was a problem but didn’t do anything,” said Salamo, 17. âThere would be children coming up and looking at you. You would attract stares from across the room. Eventually, I just started wearing my normal clothes under our required clothes.
Sufiya Mirfattah-Khan, 17, said she has been eyeed countless times while undressed. Once she changed in a hurry and her breast was accidentally exposed in front of a male classmate.
âI remember being mortified and humiliated that this happened and I blamed myself,â Mirfattah-Khan said. âUntil recently, I was like, ‘Oh my God, it wasn’t my fault.’ I should never have changed in front of him in the first place. It opened up so much space for harassment and objectification and (the officials) really tried to rationalize it for us. “
âStandardizedâ was a frequent word to describe the practice. Comments and stares were frequent, with one student even once noticing a visibly excited classmate. The classroom doors may have been opened, giving passers-by a view.
Hana, a 17-year-old whose parents requested that only her first name be used, also believed it was just part of being a disciplined actor. As eyes stared around the room, she said she felt painfully aware of her appearance, opening it up to a fixation on her body image.
âEven though I thought it was weird, I just thought it was something we needed to do,â said Hana, now a senior in the School of the Arts. âI always compared myself, I wondered if I looked weird. I wanted to have the perfect body for people to see. It shouldn’t happen.
It is not known how long the practice lasted. Michael Despars, president of the California Educational Theater Association, didn’t find changing clothes without the option of privacy to be common.
âI understand the need for students to wear black sportswear for drama and movement classes,â Despars said in an email. “However, changing in the same room as teachers and other students without the possibility of privacy is not common practice.”
Elizabeth Carter, director of the theater department from 2018 to 2020, did not respond to a request for comment. Current principal Matthew Travisano said any comments should come from the school district.
A parent from the School of the Arts, Matt Rudoff, noted that in the past, parents also saw students change during school visits. But things have changed, the practice seen in a new light.
âI think everyone’s eyes are open,â Rudoff said. âMaybe they closed them first. I have the impression that the current department, under the leadership of the new director, is tackling this problem head-on.
Mirfattah-Khan agreed that Travisano is working on a necessary culture change and grappling with the damage caused by the practice, including asking students to submit impact statements. But she feels the administration failed to act when students came forward, as it did last August, to tell a school official it was “extremely inappropriate.”
Echoing Salamo, Mirfattah-Khan said: “It was recognized, what I was saying, but nothing was done.”
Students reflect on past policy as part of district-wide student requests to improve responses complaints of sexual assault and harassment. Students at the School of the Arts, Lowell High School and Lincoln High School staged protests, demanding transparency in the reporting process, creating support systems for survivors, providing more physical and mental support, and more Again.
For the problem specific to the theater department, the students ask for recognition that this should not have happened and will not happen again.
âAt the time, I didn’t know what was wrong with this,â Serenity said. âWe were just kids, a bunch of kids changing in a room with a bunch of old people. There is no excuse for this.