Lawsuit filed in Niskayuna art censorship case

'We're not pulling any punches and we're not giving them any surprises'
This photo shows a portion of a controversial painting at an school art show.
This photo shows a portion of a controversial painting at an school art show.

NISKAYUNA — A lawsuit that claims Niskayuna Central School District and several district administrators censored the art of a female student has been filed in U.S. District Court.

The woman, who graduated from Niskayuna High School in June, is suing school officials for First Amendment and Title IX violations. Her name is not being printed by The Daily Gazette due to the nature of her claims.

The former student said school officials told her to alter and, eventually remove, a painting she created for a school art class that included the name of a man she said raped her in 2015.

Named in the lawsuit are Niskayuna Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr.; High School Principal John Rickert; Assistant Principal Eva Jones and art teacher Kelly Jones.

The Niskayuna Board of Education is also named as a defendant in the 29-page lawsuit, which was filed on Oct. 10.

Niskayuna school officials would not comment on the lawsuit.

“The district’s policy is to not comment on active litigation,” said Matt Leon, a district spokesman, in an email response.

The woman’s attorney, Latham-based Marc C. Kokosa, said a preliminary conference in the case will take place Jan. 7.

“This case is about a young woman speaking up for many other young women in the Niskayuna school district,” Kokosa said on Monday.

He also said there have been no substantive changes to the allegations first made last summer, when the woman filed notices of claim with the school district.

“We’re not pulling any punches, and we’re not giving them any surprises,” Kokosa said. “We think their conduct was unacceptable, and we’re going to pursue this until they start accepting responsibility.”

A monetary figure for compensatory damages was not included in the lawsuit.

In the lawsuit, the woman said art is a form of therapy for her, necessary after she was raped, at the age of 15, in the late summer of 2015.

The woman was on a sleepover at the home of two school friends, and the teens all were watching movies, according to details included in the lawsuit. The sleepover eventually moved to the family’s nearby camper, the woman said.

The woman said her friends’ father, in his 40s at the time, decided to join the teenagers. The woman said she was raped and sodomized during the night, with the man holding his hand over her mouth.

The man eventually was arrested and charged with third-degree rape and third-degree criminal sexual act, both felonies, and endangering the welfare of a child, a misdemeanor. He later pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct.

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

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

One piece showed a woman’s face, eyes wide open, a large hand covering her mouth. She decided to paint the name of her attacker in the victim’s eyes but was later told to remove the name.

Another piece of artwork 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.

“The artwork was submitted into the Niskayuna High School art exhibition and gallery,” the lawsuit states. “However, when the piece was retrieved … following the exhibition, she found that a school official or administrator had removed the original title tag … and replaced it with another tag which retitled her work ‘Justice’ without her knowledge or permission.”

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

The lawsuit also claims sex discrimination, which federal Title IX laws are designed to prohibit.

The young woman is currently enrolled in college out of state.

Kokosa said the entire proceeding could take a long time.

“Very easily, this could take a couple years,” he said.

Contact Daily Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 518-395-3124 or at [email protected].


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