Source: OC Register
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A former Orange County School of the Arts student said the school’s founder, Ralph S. Opacic, sexually assaulted him on campus during the 2003-2004 academic year, according to a lawsuit filed this week.
The lawsuit — filed in Orange County Superior Court on Thursday, Sept. 22 against the well-known educator and the Santa Ana Unified School District — alleges a “toxic” campus culture allowed Opacic to “prey” on vulnerable students. It was a campus that fostered “a cult-like mentality that idolized Opacic and his vision” among faculty and administrators, the lawsuit says.
Opacic, the school’s founder and executive director until his retirement in the spring, could not be immediately reached for comment on Thursday.
Santa Ana Unified spokesman Fermin Leal declined to comment Thursday, referring all questions to the school.
“Orange County School of the Arts (OCSA) has just been informed of the allegations against Dr. Ralph Opacic and the school has no comment at this time,” OCSA spokeswoman Julia Gutierrez said in an email.
The Orange County School of the Arts is a highly regarded public charter that offers some 2,300 students in grades 7-12 the opportunity to study academics along with various arts, including music, theater and dance, culinary studies, writing, and digital media.
The plaintiff, who now works as an actor, joined the school in 2000, a time when the charter was just getting its new footing in Santa Ana after leaving the Los Alamitos Unified School District.
Opacic, a choir teacher at Los Alamitos High in the early ’80s, grew what’s now known as OCSA from an after-school program to a full-fledged school. It took some moxie, local influencers, many donations, and a high-profile developer in Santa Ana to pull it all together and quickly, as Opacic and others described in a 2010 YouTube video and a 2012 Register story.
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In the lawsuit and in an interview earlier this week, the now 35-year-old man described a campus in which everyone, students included, understood that for the school to survive and thrive, it needed donors. The suit alleges, “the most important tenet emphasized by the school was the need to protect the school and Opacic’s vision for OCSA.”
“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,” the lawsuit alleges.
In an interview, the former student said he was part of the school’s first class in Santa Ana. He chose OCSA to escape bullying at another public school, and once he started at OCSA, he found success in the performing arts and the school felt like “home,” he said.
But Opacic, the lawsuit alleges, had singled him out for “sexual grooming” in his junior year, when he was around 17, with emails that were at first “teasing,” but then included “a more romantic tone.”
“At the time, I felt special,” the former student said in a Zoom call, becoming emotional. “I felt as if someone was seeing me. And it’s hard. I felt perhaps this person really cared about me in a way I was so eager to feel at that time as a young queer person.”
Later, Opacic began sending him “sexually explicit and inappropriate emails,” according to the lawsuit. After “weeks of sexually grooming” the student, Opacic pulled him out of his history class and met with him in his 7th-floor office, the lawsuit alleges.
Opacic closed the door behind the student and “began engaging in small talk,” according to the lawsuit.
“Throughout the short conversation, Opacic was fidgeting and kept eyeing the closed door. Opacic then sexually assaulted Plaintiff. Plaintiff left Opacic’s office shortly thereafter,” the lawsuit says.
After several weeks of no communication between them, Opacic invited the student to meet him at a California Pizza Kitchen in Tustin Market Place, where he asked the student “not to tell anyone about the sexual assault,” the lawsuit alleges.
The Santa Ana Unified School District “knew or should have known, or was otherwise on notice, that Opacic had violated his role as an administrator and used his position of authority and trust acting on behalf of SAUSD to gain access to children, including Plaintiff, on and off SAUSD’s facilities and grounds, which Opacic used to inappropriately touch, molest, abuse, and assault Plaintiff,” the lawsuit says.
The district, the lawsuit says, failed to “take reasonable steps or implement reasonable safeguards” and enact or ensure “adequate policies and procedures” to protect the student and other children.
Although the public charter is no longer under the umbrella of the Santa Ana Unified School District, the district is named in the complaint because it fell under its jurisdiction at the time, said attorney Brian Williams, a partner in the Costa Mesa-based Greenberg Gross LLP firm representing the former student.
In 2020, the school severed its ties with the district, against Santa Ana Unified’s wishes, and asked the Orange County Board of Education to take the school under its umbrella instead. The board granted the independent charter school a five-year renewal under the Orange County Department of Education.
Alleging negligence, sexual harassment, and sexual battery, the lawsuit seeks an unspecified amount in damages.
The lawsuit does not specify a date for when the alleged assault occurred or provide other details about it. The former student said in an interview he eventually confided in his best friend during his senior year of high school. That friend is willing to corroborate his claim during a trial, Williams, the attorney, said.
The lawsuit repeatedly refers to Opacic’s alleged misconduct with minor students but provided no other names or specific incidents. There are no other lawsuits filed in Orange County Superior Court against Opacic or the school relating to sexual misconduct.
Under a law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2019, the statute of limitations for victims of childhood abuse was extended. It created a three-year window for survivors to file legal claims against their alleged abusers, regardless of when the alleged abuse happened.
The former student said he was influenced by the Me Too movement to come forward.
“It’s taken me a long time to understand what exactly happened,” he told the Register. “Now, I have a niece and nephew of my own. And I look at them, and I just want to protect them.
“For the longest time, I thought I did something wrong, and I thought I deserved what happened to me. I carried that around for quite some time in a lot of different ways,” he continued. “And as a queer man, I do feel that this happens more often than not.”
The Orange County School of the Arts, originally called the Orange County High School of the Arts, has received numerous accolades over the decades. Educators and others have commended Opacic’s leadership during his 34 years at the helm of the school.
In announcing his retirement earlier this year, Opacic said: “Leading this organization has truly been the greatest honor and privilege of my professional career.”
OCSA expanded in 2017 with a campus in the San Gabriel Valley. Both campuses host special events and performances showcasing their students’ talents throughout the school year.
Staff writer Sean Emery contributed to this report.