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

Students of all grades in the high school stripped off their street clothes and donned black, loose-fitting acting clothes for each other in the same room as teachers checked attendance, multiple students told The Examiner. They said they had no practical option to change privately elsewhere if they wanted to avoid being flagged for class late.

In addition to feeling embarrassed and exposed, at least one student said they were sexually harassed by a classmate. San Francisco Unified School District confirmed it was investigating the changing time of the community.

“Earlier this school year, the RASOTA administration began investigating when they learned of a sexual harassment allegation that allegedly took place during the communal change time,” said SFUSD spokesperson Laura Dudnick in an email last week. “We are continuing the investigation and based on our research to date, we believe that students have moved into a communal area and were unable to use the bathrooms due to time constraints. It remains unclear, and it is still under investigation, whether students have other options had to change and still be on time for class.”

The rise of the 2019 pandemic, which resulted in school closures, put an end to the practice of changing clothes in communal areas. Since the school reopened, a new theater director has shut down the practice by ditching the acting outfits called “fits” altogether. But today’s seniors and juniors, the last class to participate in the exercise, said they are still coming to terms with the emotional scars of privacy invaded, 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 to Twin Peaks on the northern edge of Glen Canyon Park.

Serenity, 17, was a college 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 recorded with parental permission.)

As a high school student, Serenity was told during the audition to put on more athletic clothing to allow for ease of 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 undressing when the teachers arrived.

When told to change with everyone there, Serenity said it was “along the lines of, ‘This is how 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 for 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 that a classmate repeatedly came close to her during change time and stabbed her. Serenity said she tried to change in the bathroom but would be flagged as late. She stopped showing up in “attacks” at all, further hurting her grades.

With the new school year back to personal instruction, Serenity said she was having a hard time running into the same classmate and finally decided to report her experience to the administration.

The examiner spoke to four students, all of whom said they wanted more privacy in which to change. They resorted to cutting their lunches short to change in the bathroom or to change before the rest of the class was in the room. Bathrooms and classrooms were also sometimes locked, making a reliable place to change privately difficult to find, some said.

A current senior, Amalya Salamo, said she found the practice “very strange” and brought the matter to the school’s headquarters in the fall of 2019. But nothing changed, she said.

“They simply acknowledged it was a problem but took no action,” said 17-year-old Salamo. “There would be children who would just come and stare at you. You would catch people’s eyes from across the room. In the end I just started wearing my normal clothes under our required clothes.”

Sufiya Mirfattah-Khan, 17, said she was lured countless times while undressing. One time, she turned in a hurry and accidentally exposed her chest 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 thought, ‘Oh my God, that wasn’t my fault.’ I should never have changed for him in the first place. It opened up so much room for intimidation and objectification and (officials) really tried to rationalize it to us.”

“Normalized” was a common word to describe the practice. Comments and glances were frequent, with one student one day even noticing a classmate who was visibly excited. The classroom doors may have been open, allowing passers-by to see.

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 the looks darted across the room, she said she was painfully aware of her appearance, which opened her to a fixation on her body image.

“Although I thought it was odd, I just thought it was something we should do,” says Hana, now a senior at the School of the Arts. “I was always comparing myself, wondering if I looked weird. I wanted to have the perfect body for people to see. That may not happen.”

It is not clear how long the practice lasted. Michael Despars, president of the California Educational Theater Association, didn’t think it was customary to change clothes without the option of privacy.

“I understand that students should wear black sportswear for acting and exercise classes,” Despars said in an email. “However, changing in the same room as teachers and other students with no 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 principal, Matthew Travisano, said any comments should come from the school district.

A School of the Arts parent, Matt Rudoff, noted that in the past, parents also saw students change clothes on school tours. But things have changed, the practice seen in a new light.

“I think everyone’s eyes are open,” Rudoff said. “Maybe they closed them earlier. I have the feeling that the current department there under the new director will tackle this immediately.”

Mirfattah-Khan agreed that Travisano is working on a necessary culture shift and grapples with the damage the practice has done, including requiring students to file impact statements. But she feels the administration failed 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 acknowledged, what I said, but nothing was done.”

Students reflect on past policies as part of: district-wide demands from students to improve responses claims of sexual assault and intimidation. Students from the School of the Arts, Lowell High School and Lincoln High School held protests, demanded transparency about the reporting process, created support systems for survivors, offer increased physical and mental support, and more.

For the problem specific to the theater department, students seek confirmation that it shouldn’t have happened and it won’t happen again.

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

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