Magazine News Volume 70, Issue 2

In the Wake of Las Lomas Reform, the Drama Department Rebuilds

Starting June 18, 2020, the Las Lomas Reform movement engulfed social media after the creation of its associated Instagram page. The Las Lomas Reform Now rally was held in front of Las Lomas on June 23, 2020. Shortly thereafter, the Acalanes Union High School District began an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment and racism at Las Lomas. This investigation concluded on September 18, 2020 and did not substantiate “allegations of harassment and discrimination against Las Lomas staff,” according to Superintendent John Nickerson’s letter to parents and staff – with one, unspecified exception, which an interview with an anonymous Las Lomas administrator in a previous article for The Page later confirmed was associated with Taron Hensley – the subject of many anonymous allegations on Las Lomas Reform’s Instagram page – and his placement on long-term leave on September 21.

Though the investigation associated with allegations against Taron Hensley concluded in September, the Drama Department – now indefinitely without Hensley – continues to experience deep fallout from this investigation and associated allegations. Sophomore Irina Soboleva, an intermediate drama student, said that the situation “definitely shocked all of us and…really broke some of us apart.” Likewise, according to senior Jazmin Barnes, an Advanced Drama student, there were “quite a few members of the class of 2021…[who] chose not to return this year,” estimating that “about thirty to forty percent of the class chose not to return.” Barnes is also a member of the Drama Council, which she described as “a group of advanced drama students annually elected by their peers to help make decisions for the drama department.” The council “did exist before the suspension,” according to Barnes, but according to fellow senior and Drama Councillor Charlie Sjogren-Black, “it was for financial approval of spending department money on shows, not for the larger purpose it serves now.”

According to Sjogren-Black, the main effect of this exodus of seniors was that “the proportion of seniors to juniors is lower than usual… [because] many seniors did not retake the class,” which means that “since it was a class you had to audition to get into,” some students who initially weren’t able to get into the class, especially juniors, were able to do so because so many seniors left. Sjogren-Black said that “less people in the class [initially knew] each other, but… the experience we have gone through… really bonded us as a class.”

In the aftermath of the investigation and Hensley’s associated leave, both students and administration have played substantial roles in rebuilding the department and had varying levels of involvement in hiring a new long-term substitute for Hensley.

One group that has had substantial involvement in the advanced drama classes – whose students act in all school plays and whose classes Hensley exclusively taught – has been the drama council. According to Barnes, the Drama Council has been “[supporting] the drama department as a whole, to regroup and build community,” such as through “the Instagram page @llhscastncrew as a way to spread hope and positivity… hosting elections for representatives for every class, so we can connect with every group in the department [and] plans for future fundraising events, showcases, and other fun activities to bring students together.”

The Drama Council has also had some limited involvement with the hiring process to select Hensley’s long-term substitute. According to Principal Tiffany Benson, “We reached out to the Drama Council… midway through the hiring process… Ms. Hernandez and I both met with the Drama Council before the interview. They didn’t have access to any of the information about the candidates but we talked about what [the Drama Council was] looking for [and hoping for] in a good candidate, and [the Council] also sent me some feedback on some questions to ask the candidates before the interviews as well.”

This hiring process concluded on Thursday, October 8 when the Las Lomas administration decided to hire Ryan Justus as the long-term replacement. He is a graduate of UC Berkeley’s Dramatic Arts undergraduate program and San Francisco State’s Theatre Arts postgraduate program. Prior to working at Las Lomas, Justus said that he’s “worked with Alameda High School’s drama program on their musicals since 2015, [choreographing] two musicals a year for them, [and during] working season [taking] over the direction of the shows, in addition to the choreography, when the drama teacher was out with an injury.” Justus also “[teaches] musical theatre at an annual conference in Southern California where I work with multiple high schools that attend” and has “taught dance for over 25 years, jazz, tap, ballet, contemporary, and managed competitive performance teams from middle school to high school.” 

Justus also has a background in the performing arts in the form of “[having] had many wonderful performance opportunities including five performances at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade with a tap group I am a member of, The Tap Dancing Christmas Trees, [and continuing] to compete in dance and participate in productions when time allows.”

Sjogren-Black said that “currently, there is a lot of mixed feelings [surrounding Justus’ replacement of Hensley], which is expected with any large change,” and that “since Mr. Justus’ hiring, we have begun a new writing project, ceasing to write the [project] we had under Hensley.” Barnes said that “we’ve [also] started reading a new play” and that, despite initial skepticism, she believes “that we’re all excited to start working on theatre again from a new perspective.” Sjogren-Black said that “there has been an undeniable shift in curriculum, but hopefully any unfavorable changes can be fixed with communication between [the] Drama Council and Mr. Justus.”

In Justus’s experience, “high schools have not had these types of groups providing a student voice for the program, [but] I like it and I look forward to working with them…The collaboration of [Drama and Stagecraft] is what I like. We work together to make something that is special and magic.”