A Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts graduate student has filed a civil suit against the school and a staff member who allegedly took pictures of her personal nude photographs.

The student’s lawsuit contends the incident, which took place March 14 in the student’s PAFA-assigned studio, has led the student to experience “severe emotional distress, extreme mental anguish, anxiety, chest pains, and shortness of breath.” The suit alleges that the school was negligent, failing to keep the student safe, and that PAFA and the staffer caused her distress and interfered with her ability to display her work in the manner of her choosing.

Filed in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas this month, the suit names Steven Connell, who is identified as PAFA’s then-director of student life, as the man who took the photos. The student is not named in the court documents, citing the sexual nature of the incident and “reasonable fear of severe harm” should her identity be disclosed.

Connell hung up when reached by a reporter and hasn’t retained an attorney. Connell was removed from the school’s staff directory after the incident, but PAFA would not confirm he was the staff member involved or his employment status.

PAFA began an internal investigation as soon as it learned of the incident and “with clear evidence in hand” dismissed the employee, Eric G. Pryor, PAFA’s new president and CEO, said in a statement to The Inquirer the week of the incident.

“There is no evidence to suggest that this was anything other than a singular violation of policy,” added Pryor.

“It is our mission to nurture the next generation of American artists in an environment where they are respected,” Pryor also said in the statement.

The student is seeking an unspecified amount in compensatory or punitive damages, or both. She spoke to The Inquirer on the condition of anonymity and said Connell entered her PAFA studio while she wasn’t there to deliver a key to another art studio. A Ring camera she’d set up for a different art installation recorded him inside.

The footage, reviewed by The Inquirer, shows Connell taking out his phone, bending down, and extending an arm over an out-of-view section of the studio’s floor. The lawsuit claims Connell snapped photos of the student’s “naked body and breasts” “for his own benefit.”

The student said the nude photos were on the floor alongside a work-in-progress piece and were material for future art. She said she had yet to decide if they would make it into the final piece.

“I want to be very, very clear that he didn’t just take pictures of my art,” the student said. “He took pictures of my naked photographs. This was not art yet.”

The suit says the student reached out to Connell, executive dean of the College of Fine Arts Clint Jukkala, and Master of Fine Arts chair Kevin Richards. Connell explained he often entered studios after knocking to drop off keys.

“I did see your work on the floor, including the nude photo, and then thought you would not feel comfortable with me in your studio so I left, locked the door and put the key on the outside of your door,” Connell wrote in an emailed response, which was included in the suit. “I can show you or anyone else there are not any images of your work on my phone.”

PAFA’s Title IX coordinator, Lisa Biagas, who is also vice president of human resources, told the student she would be investigating and instructed Connell to delete any of the nude images of the student from his phone, according to the suit.

A dismissal, followed by students ‘feeling lost and confused’

According to the lawsuit, PAFA didn’t address the incident with its student body until several days after firing Connell.

“As many of you are aware, an incident in our graduate program this week breached the trust and privacy that we all expect and value in our studios and community,” wrote Jukkala in an email sent to the PAFA community two days after Connell’s dismissal.

Jukkala’s email said the staff member had been dismissed but did not offer specifics or mention Connell by name or title.

Jukkala announced he and Pryor would meet with graduate students to discuss how PAFA would keep the community “respectful and safe,” but that meeting was later canceled.

PAFA offered an assortment of services as substitutes, including one-on-one and small group meetings with a behavioral health representative, open office hours sessions with PAFA staff, and a discussion — part of a monthly series — with Pryor.

PAFA declined to offer additional details about its handling of the incident, citing the litigation.

The incident is the latest challenge for the country’s oldest fine arts museum and school of about 300 students, which has come under fire for how it’s handled sensitive matters before.

» READ MORE: Two women say Philly’s most venerable arts school mishandled their sexual assaults. Years later, the case is still rattling the institution.

During the 2020 racial justice protests, PAFA faced backlash for a “reminder” it sent to staff asking them not to cite their school affiliation if they participated in protests or other activism.

The administration would also face criticism for how it addressed the alleged 2016 rapes of two PAFA students committed by another student.

Some students are pushing the school to do more to address this most recent incident.

Last week, more than 20 students sent Jukkala an emailed letter obtained by The Inquirer, requesting a community meeting “to acknowledge what happened, to address student safety and privacy rights, and to resolve what is our intellectual property as artists.”

The letter said the students were “feeling lost and confused.”

Jukkala directed the students to PAFA’s student handbook for concerns about privacy as well as other resources for wellness concerns. He offered to meet with the student who emailed the request, adding that he’s been regularly meeting with students.