OCSA sexual abuse lawsuit remains unresolved

Haley Nguyen, Staff Writer

Top-rated 7th-12th grade Orange County School of the Arts (OCSA) is under scrutiny for an alarming sexual abuse lawsuit filed against the school’s now-retired founder and former executive director, Ralph Opacic. The lawsuit was filed back in Sep. 2022 but recently resurfaced due to local residents’ complaints at a meeting with the Orange County (OC) Board of Education.

According to the lawsuit, the plaintiff was singled out by Opacic during the 2003-2004 school year for “sexual grooming” through increasingly intimate emails and eventually a private meeting in his office, where the student was allegedly assaulted. Following weeks of no contact, Opacic reportedly met up with the plaintiff off-campus, asking him to keep the encounter a secret. During his stint as the school’s executive director, Opacic supposedly fostered a “toxic” environment with a “cult-like mentality” that enabled him to “prey” on vulnerable students.

This lawsuit, though concerning an older abuse case, was filed in accordance with a law passed by Governor Gavin Newsom in 2019, which enabled child abuse victims to seek justice regardless of when the abuse occurred.

Despite the many rumors of Opacic’s illicit relationships with students, he remained at the school for 17 years after the alleged assault. Santa Ana Unified School District (SAUSD) was blamed for their negligence and complacency, as they managed OCSA up until 2020 before the OC Board of Education took the charter school under its wing. Neither OCSA nor the Board was directly blamed.

OCSA alumni and current students alike have voiced that there are numerous reported sexual assault cases being overlooked at the school outside of the lawsuit. The May 2022 issue of OCSA’s student newspaper, “Evolution,” criticized the school’s administration for their history of ignoring the assault victims in favor of less urgent matters like Senior Ditch Day or student gossip. 

“I felt like administration was trying harder to protect my assaulter’s reputation than my own safety,” said one anonymous OCSA student. “I wish that they had treated it with gravity and validity rather than trying harder to mediate the consequences.” 

The current president and CEO of OCSA, Teren Shaffer, wrote in an email that OCSA initiated a currently ongoing independent investigation, and reassured parents and students that authorities were taking both past and present allegations seriously. The lawsuit has yet to be resolved yet as the investigation remains private.

When pressed by residents to conduct a thorough investigation on Jan. 4 during an OC Board of Education meeting, the board trustees claimed to not have enough authority despite being responsible for the school. 

“The most we can do is bring OCSA down here and spotlight the issue and start asking questions,” said trustee Jorge Valdes. “I am willing to take action, but it would have to be with somebody there now and the most we can do is just spotlight the issue. We can’t just tell the department to start spending money on criminal investigators.”