Former students and parents at the Orange County School of the Arts (OCSA), one of the country’s most prominent art schools, are demanding the Orange County Board of Education investigate allegations of sexual misconduct at the charter school.
The group of parents and former students allege the school has a culture of sexual misconduct on campus, stemming back decades.
And they say the board, as the chartering authority, has the power to do it and an obligation to keep kids safe.
Following the pressure, it looks as though board members plan to take some kind of action.
Greg Rolen, the board’s attorney, said in a Thursday phone interview that the subject was brought for a discussion at Wednesday’s meeting behind closed doors – after they had first heard about it at their January meeting.
“We will be taking action. I’m mortified that people would even think the board doesn’t take sexual harassment, and abuse seriously and understand that every board member has a zero tolerance policy for sexual abuse,” he said.
Rolen would not disclose what the “action” would be.
“On behalf of the board, we couldn’t be taking this matter any more seriously and we are going to conduct our oversight responsibilities with zeal,” he said.
Board President Lisa Sparks provided a statement Thursday.
“As a parent, like all my colleagues on the Board of Education, I am mortified at the thought of adults hurting our children. We have listened diligently to public comment and immediately scheduled a closed session in response,” Sparks’ statement reads.
“The board holds its oversight responsibility sacrosanct within the boundary set forth by the California education code. For legal reasons, we cannot go on to particulars, but rest assured, the board will do what is right.”
Trustees Tim Shaw, Mari Barke and Ken Williams deferred questions to the board’s attorney on Thursday.
“We’re all taking it very seriously and we’re all disgusted at the allegations,” Shaw said Thursday.
Williams said a public response was in the works.
A Community Speaks Out
The trustees’ remarks and closed door discussion comes after community members have spoken out at the last three board meetings.
“Multitudes of former and current students are telling you that the environment at OCSA has harmed and continues to harm children,” Amy Luna Capelle, board president of the Journey Charter School said at the OC Board of Education meeting last Wednesday.
“It’s your patriotic and moral duty as the authorizing board to investigate these claims, as it’s the only way to get to the bottom of it and remove any danger from pedophiles or allow the investigation to show innocence.”
Trustee Jorge Valdes said at the end of the January meeting the board didn’t have the authority to conduct such an investigation.
But Nomi Abadi, a former student who alleged she has faced harassment during her time at OCSA, pushed back on that claim.
“There could be offenders walking around campus unchecked and wouldn’t it be awful if there are innocent folks from OCSA whose reputations are wrongfully suffering,” she said at Wednesday’s meeting.
“You as board members have the ultimate authority and ultimate moral ethical responsibility. Who is going to protect the children from abuse, if not you?”
Abadi pointed to Senate Bill-75 and a couple of sections of the education code on charter schools and the OC Board of Education’s responsibilities as the charting authority over OCSA.
“The language in these codes clearly illustrates your policy procedure to receive and investigate these claims at the Orange County School of the Arts, as well as to ensure the safety overall for all the students,” she said.
“A county superintendent of schools may, based upon written complaints by parents or other information that justifies the investigation, monitor the operations of a charter school located within that county and conduct an investigation into the operations of that charter school,” according to Section 47604.4 of the State education code.
Abadi isn’ the only one who says the Board does have the authority to act.
Liz Dorn Parker, a former OC Board of Education Trustee for 30 years, also points to the passage of Senate Bill-75 in 2019 that she said requires the chartering authority to have a process for receiving and processing complaints.
“The County Board of Education and the superintendent have the authority to conduct this,” she said in a phone interview prior to the meeting.
She also points to Education code section 52075 on uniform complaint procedures.
“It’s unclear to me why they wouldn’t want to do this because if you had any children being harmed in a school setting that you were overseeing wouldn’t you want to get to the bottom of it?”
Parker serves on the Coast Community College District Board of Trustee and Vice Chair and treasurer of the Samueli Academy charter school.
She said if the board doesn’t want to do the investigation they can turn it over to the District Attorney – something Parker said had been done during her tenure on the board in the past.
Parker also said administrators and the county board members are mandatory reporters.
“I don’t know how this county board can receive this information as mandatory reporters,” she said. “And not ask the district attorney to come in and investigate. That’s your obligation.”
Arts School Faces Sexual Abuse Lawsuit
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.
The lawsuit 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” and staff turned a blind eye.
In an email last month, Teren Shaffer, the President and CEO of the school, said the school launched their own investigation into the allegation following the lawsuit.
Shaffer didn’t respond when asked for an update on that investigation through email Thursday.
In the May 2022 edition of the OCSA Evolution, a student news outlet, students criticized administration’s handling of issues of sexual harassment and assault.
Read the student article here.
“The beginning of the year was quickly soured with multiple sexual assault allegations reported by students,” the students wrote.
“Despite a long history of sexual assault and harrassment at OCSA, many victims claim administration has not addressed this issue properly.”
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.