Residents and former students of the Orange County School of the Arts (OCSA) are demanding an independent probe into sexual misconduct allegations at one of the most prominent art schools in the country.

On Wednesday, former students, parents and residents showed up to the Orange County Board of Education meeting to demand that the trustees launch an investigation into allegations they said have long been ignored.

They want accountability and safety for the students still there.

At the end of the meeting, Trustee Jorge Valdes said they don’t have the authority to do an investigation.

“The most we can do is bring OCSA down here and spotlight the issue and start asking questions,” he said.

Valdes emphasized that if there was a current employee faced with these allegations he would be in favor of questioning them at a meeting.

“I am willing to take action, but it would have to be with somebody there now and, and the most we can do is just spotlight the issue. We are not an investigative agency like that. We can’t just tell the department to start spending money on criminal investigators.”

Among the speakers at the meeting was Katie Bollinger, a former student from the early 2000s, who said she faced harassment and inappropriate touching from a teacher who is now an administrator currently working there. 

She also said as a 13-year-old she faced assault from 18-year-olds at the school.

Now roughly two decades later, Bollinger said not much has changed.

“We’re seeing more and more how many students are still suffering this abuse, and it has just further lit our fire because we so wish that there was somebody to stand up for us at the time,” she said in a Wednesday phone interview.

“This is probably our best way of getting OCSA to actually make some changes and listen,” she said about the calls for an investigation.

Teren Shaffer, President and CEO of the school, said in a Friday email that OCSA takes all past and present allegations seriously.

“OCSA has a process to investigate and address reports of serious misconduct, including but not limited to sexual harassment, sexual assault, or other sexual misconduct,” he wrote.

The demands for an investigation come months after a lawsuit was filed in September by an unnamed former student alleging the school’s founder Ralph Opacic sexually assaulted him on campus during the 2003-04 school year.

Opacic did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Shaffer said an investigation into the allegations are currently underway.
“When the lawsuit was filed against the former CEO in September 2022, OCSA initiated an independent investigation through the office of litigation counsel. This is still in process,” Shaffer wrote in a Friday email.

Bollinger isn’t the only one speaking out.

Nomi Abadi, a former student, said she was harassed by an older student when she attended the school in the early 2000s and got reprimanded by her principal for calling the police.

“We want to set a new precedent that we’re not going to say, this stuff is okay and that we’re going to say these are worth investigating,” Abadi said in a Wednesday phone interview.

“This is probably our best way of getting OCSA to actually make some changes and listen. We have to call in a third party that’s not controlled by OCSA to take a look and actually see the extent of what’s going on to really truly understand why these things are still happening.”

Abadi is also the founder of the Female Composer Safety League, a group that looks to help victims of sexual abuse in the music industry.

In November, she and Bollinger hosted a demonstration at the OC School of the Arts to call out predatory culture they say is still prevalent at the school.

“From the current students we’ve been talking to, we know there are dozens – if not hundreds – of reports against students and teachers that that the school currently has,” Bollinger said, adding school officials are doing nothing with them.

In the OCSA Evolution, a student news outlet, current students have criticized administration’s handling of issues of sexual harassment and assault.

Read the student article here.

Fallout From a Lawsuit? 

The lawsuit alleges that Opacic sent the 17-year-old student inappropriate and sexually explicit emails before Opacic sexually assaulted the student in his office.

The lawsuit also alleges a toxic culture at one of the country’s most prestigious arts schools, where Opacic allegedly used his leadership role at the Orange County School of the Arts “to prey on vulnerable students.”

“The teachers, faculty, and administration fed into a cult-like mentality that idolized Opacic and his vision. This idolization of Opacic became so omnipotent that even when rumors about Opacic’s sexual involvement with students began to circulate, the teachers, faculty, and administration turned a blind eye,” reads the lawsuit.

Read the full legal complaint here.

Both Bollinger and Abadi agreed with that description of the culture at their former school. 

Bollinger said some of the former students are opening up to each other about their own experiences at OCSA following the lawsuit.

But not everyone is still around to share their story.

Abadi said one of her best friends committed suicide because he was allegedly molested by Opacic.

“We all knew about it. These were not just quiet allegations that came out one day – we all knew that this was going on,” Abadi said. “And now he’s gone.”

Opacic and the Orange County School of the Arts are not the only ones to get called out.

The Santa Ana Unified School District, which used to oversee the school charter before the OC Board of Education took over in 2020, was also named in the lawsuit and accused of failing to protect students from Opacic.

“SAUSD did not take any action to prevent Opacic from spending inappropriate amounts of time with minor students, flirting with minor students, or electronically harassing minor students. Consequently, Opacic was allowed continued access to minor students for another 17 years,” the lawsuit reads.

Fermin Leal, a spokesman for the Santa Ana Unified School District, said in a Wednesday phone call that the district had no oversight over school staff when the alleged sexual misconduct and abuse occurred in the early 2000’s and deferred questions to the school itself.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Mary Spencer, a mother who said her child was sexually abused while attending OCSA, said it’s not too late to help current and future students.

“You’ve heard there have been continued and concurrent allegations of sexual misconduct against minors at OCSA,” Spencer said.

“This is 2023 and it’s time to pull back the curtain at OCSA for its history of ignoring and mishandling these allegations.”

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

•••

Start each day informed with our free email newsletter. Be alerted when news breaks with our free text messages.

And since you’ve made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.