Niskayuna High grad to sue school over art censorship

The drawing at the source of the controversy (photo provided).The drawing at the source of the controversy (photo provided).

NISKAYUNA — An 18-year-old woman who graduated from Niskayuna High School in June plans to sue school officials for First Amendment and Title IX violations over art censorship.

The former student alleged school officials told her to alter and finally remove a painting she created in a school art class that contained the name of a man whom she said raped her in 2015.

Latham-based attorney Marc C. Kokosa said notices of claims have been filed with the Niskayuna Central School District. Named in the claims are Niskayuna Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra; High School Principal John Rickert; Assistant Principal Eva Jones; and art teacher Kelly Jones.

The Niskayuna Board of Education is also named in the notices.

Tangorra late Wednesday night confirmed the district had received the notices.

There were no other comments from school personnel. Samantha Bloem, a district spokeswoman, said the district’s policy is not to comment on pending litigation.

The woman, interviewed at her home Wednesday afternoon with both her mother and Kokosa present, said she has filed the claims because she believes her rights were violated. The Daily Gazette is not printing her name.

“I don’t find it fair that they can come in and make me seem less than a human being when I’m just trying to get through my own traumas,” the girl said. “They need to be more considerate and look out for other students in the future.”

The woman said art was a form of therapy for her, necessary after the alleged rape took place during the late summer of 2015 when she was 15 years old.

The girl was on a sleepover at the home of two school friends, and the teens all were watching movies. The sleepover eventually moved to the family’s new camper, the girl said, which was parked at their home.

The girl said her friends’ father, aged in his 40s, decided to join the teenagers. The girl said she later was raped and sodomized, with the man holding his hand over her mouth.

More than a year later, the girl told her mother and Niskayuna police were contacted. In September 2016, the man was arrested by police and charged with third-degree rape and third-degree criminal sexual act, both felonies, and endangering the welfare of a child, a misdemeanor.

There was no conviction for rape, but he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct.  The district attorney’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday, so it’s unclear why he pleaded guilty to a lesser crime.

The girl secured an order of protection against the man, which will remain in effect through early 2019.

She decided to work through her emotions with her artwork. She began one of her paintings last December, an assignment for a high school “Advanced Art II” class.

It was an “intentional” portrait. The girl’s layered artwork showed a woman’s face, eyes wide open, a large hand covering her mouth. She decided to paint the name of her alleged attacker in the victim’s eyes.

She said she was later told the man’s daughters had complained about the piece. She said she was told to alter the piece to remove the name.

“Initially, I sat in the hallway and I cried,” the girl said Wednesday. “I was being silenced again and my painting was about being silenced in the first place.”

Another problem came with another piece of artwork, this one from the girl’s junior year. This piece showed the back of a man, his hands in handcuffs. The artist included a tag near the cuffs that contained the name of her attacker.

“Without her permission, an employee of the Niskayuna Central School District ripped off the title tag and replaced it with another tag, re-titling the artwork … and without her consent, ‘Justice,'” read one of the notices.

Kokosa said his client also was being harassed by her alleged attacker’s daughters in school. According to the legal paperwork filed, the girl made at least 15 harassment complaints to school officials.

“It came to Assistant Principal Eva Jones’ attention,” Kokosa said, “and instead of really investigating the issue, she instead went down and pulled [the girl] out of the classroom and said, ‘Listen, you’re not the center of the universe, you don’t need to be making these complaints every day.'”

The notice also claims sex discrimination, which federal Title IX laws are designed to prohibit. The notice alleges in part that the girl was “silenced” in favor of her rapist.

Kokosa expects to file lawsuits against the district during September.

Contact Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 518-395-3124 or at wilkin@dailygazette.com.