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SF art school investigates theater class practice that had students undressing together

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

Students across all grades at the high school undressed from their street clothes and donned black, loose-fitting acting clothes in front of each other in the same room while teachers checked attendance, multiple students told The Examiner. They said that they had no practical option to change privately elsewhere if they wanted to avoid being marked tardy for class.

Besides feeling embarrassed and exposed, at least one student said they were sexually harassed by a fellow classmate. San Francisco Unified School District confirmed it was investigating the common changing time.

“Earlier this school year, RASOTA administration began investigating when they learned of an allegation of sexual harassment that allegedly occurred during the common changing time,” said SFUSD spokesperson Laura Dudnick in an email last week. “We are continuing to investigate and based on our investigation to date, we believe that students changed in a common area and, because of time constraints, were not able to use the bathrooms. It remains unclear, and it is still under investigation, as to whether students had other options to change and still be on time to class.”

The emergence of the pandemic in 2019, which resulted in school closures, ended the practice of changing clothes in common areas. Since the school has reopened, a new theater director stopped the practice by dispensing altogether with the acting outfits, called “fits.” But current seniors and juniors, the last class that participated in the practice, said they are still coming to terms with the emotional scars from invaded privacy, objectification and body image issues.

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

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

As a middle schooler, Serenity was told during the audition that she would have to change into more athletic wear to move around easily 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 undressed as teachers took attendance.

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

Not long after, however, Serenity said one classmate came close to her repeatedly during the changing time and brushed up against her. Serenity said she tried changing in the bathroom but would be marked down as being late. She stopped showing up in “fits” altogether, further harming her grades.

With the new school year back to in-person instruction, Serenity said she had a hard time running into the same classmate and eventually decided to report her experience to the administration.

The Examiner spoke to four students, all of whom said they sought more privacy to change clothes. They resorted to cutting their lunches short to change in the bathroom or to change clothes before the rest of the class got to the room. Bathrooms and the classrooms were also sometimes locked, making a reliable place to change privately hard to come by, some said.

A current senior, Amalya Salamo, said she found the practice “very odd” and brought up the issue to the school’s main office in the fall of 2019. But nothing changed, she said.

“They just kind of acknowledged it was a problem but didn’t have any action,” said 17-year-old Salamo. “There would be kids who just walked up and stare at you. You’d catch peoples’ eyes from across the room. Eventually, I just started wearing my normal clothes under our required clothes.”

Sufiya Mirfattah-Khan, 17, said she’d been leered at countless times while undressed. One time, she changed in a rush and her chest became accidentally exposed in front of a male classmate.

“I remember being mortified and humiliated that that happened and I blamed myself,” Mirfattah-Khan said. “Until recently, I was like, ‘Oh my God, that was not my fault.’ I never should have been changing in front of him in the first place. It opened so much space for harassment and objectification and (officials) really tried to rationalize it to us.”

“Normalized” was a frequent word to describe the practice. Comments and stares were frequent, with one student even noticing a classmate visibly aroused one day. Classroom doors may have been open, giving passersby a view.

Hana, a 17-year-old whose parent requested that only her first name be used, also thought it was just part of being a disciplined actor. As gazes darted around the room, she said she found herself painfully aware of her looks, opening her up to a fixation on her body image.

“Even though I thought it was strange, I just thought it was something we had to do,” said Hana, now a senior at the School of the Arts. “I was always comparing myself, I’d ask myself if I looked weird. I wanted to have the perfect body so people could see that. That should not happen.”

It’s unclear how long the practice went on. Michael Despars, president of the California Educational Theatre Association, did not find changing clothes without the option for privacy to be common.

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

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

One School of the Arts parent, Matt Rudoff, remarked that in the past parents saw students changing on the school tours, too. But things have shifted, the practice seen in a new light.

“I think everyone’s eyes are open,” Rudoff said. “Maybe they were shutting them before. I feel that the current department there under the new director is addressing this head on.”

Mirfattah-Khan agreed that Travisano is working toward a needed culture shift and is grappling with the damage brought on by the practice, including having students submit impact statements. But she feels the administration has failed to act when students come forward, as she did last August, to tell a school official that it was “wildly inappropriate.”

Echoing Salamo, Mirfattah-Khan said: “It was acknowledged, what I was saying but nothing was done.”

Students are reflecting on the past policy as part of district-wide demands from students to improve responses to sexual assault and harassment claims. Students at the School of the Arts, Lowell High School, and Lincoln High School held protests, making demands for transparency around the reporting process, creating support systems for survivors, provide more physical and mental support, and more.

For the issue specific to the theater department, students seek an acknowledgment that it shouldn’t have happened and that it won’t occur again.

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

imojadad@sfexaminer.com

Ida Mojadad

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