Chelsy Zelasko is a former Connecticut teacher who has filed a lawsuit against a private school she says fired her because she posed for semi-nude photos to show her support for Donald Trump ahead of the 2016 presidential election. The 27-year-old Zelasko filed her lawsuit against the Grove School on June 17, more three years after the nearly naked pictures were published by a website in her home state of Pennsylvania.
Zelasko took part in a series the website, Better Than the Weekend, had been running in which people would, “literally expose themselves for who they are and what they truly want out of life.” Zelasko told the website in an interview that accompanied the photos that she was a registered Democrat, but decided to vote for Trump and was a “vocal supporter” of him during his campaign.
Zelasko was not working as a teacher at the Grove School, which is based in Madison, Connecticut, when the photos were published. She was hired to work there in February 2019 as an art teacher, according to the lawsuit. On April 3, the school’s executive director, Peter Chorney, told Zelasko he had been made aware of the photos and asked her to resign. According to her attorney, the photos were found by parents who then complained to Chorney. When she refused to resign, Chorney fired her, Zelasko claims in her lawsuit.
The Grove School is a therapeutic boarding and day school that serves students ranging from grade 7 to 12. Chorney told Zelasko, “The issue is about role-modeling for emotionally fragile kids and holding oneself to a higher standard as an educator. Your credibility is now a major concern.”
The photos were featured on the website she gave the interview to, but were also picked up by local news stations, which ran headlines like, “Pa. Democrat Bares All to Get Votes for Donald Trump,” and “Pennsylvania Trump Fan Disrobes Online to Encourage Voting.”
The Grove School did not respond to a request for comment about the lawsuit. A July 2 hearing has been set in New Haven.
Zelasko told WTNH-TV, “I don’t feel like they should have let me go or fired me because of my political beliefs and what I believe in, I would never ever bring that into a classroom or nor would it affect my teaching skills at all.”
Here’s what you need to know about Chelsy Zelasko and her lawsuit:
1. Zelasko Says She Was Fired for ‘Expressing My Views That I Believe in & Exercising My Constitutional Rights’
Chelsy Zelasko filed the lawsuit in Connecticut state Superior Court in New Haven on June 17. In the lawsuit, Zelasko says her firing by the Grove School was “unlawful and retaliatory,” on account of “her exercise of her rights to freedom of expression articulated in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and in Section 4, Article First of the Constitution of the State of Connecticut.”
Zelasko said the series she took part in for the website, Better Than the Weekend, also included photoshoots of a variety of people posing partially nude, including a man who was running for mayor of Scranton, an undocumented immigrant and a breast cancer survivor. Zelasko, when asked why she would pose for the photos, told the website:
As soon as people see these photos, they’re going to instantly judge me. They’re going to see this American white girl with an American flag, nude, and they’re going to think I’m trying to get attention for the wrong reasons. When people think of naked bodies, they instantly think of sex and touching and perversion and that shouldn’t be the case. They should look past that to wonder why I’m doing this.
They don’t know my history. They don’t know anything about me. They probably won’t know that I have a bachelor’s degree or that I’ve donated my hair to Locks of Love because I thought some other girl needed my hair more than I do. They probably won’t know I’m a registered voter and that I’m posing in what I consider to be a beautiful art form to show gratitude for the beautiful art form that is our democracy. Being able to vote for your leader is a big deal. The media has made this election out to be like a cage fight, but the concept of voting for your president is beautiful and empowering, and that’s why I’m doing this, to remind people of that.
According to the lawsuit, Zelasko posed with guns because she is, “a vocal proponent of 2nd Amendment rights.”
The photos were taken by Pennsylvania photographer Lisa Petz. Zelasko told the website she would have been disappointed if Trump had lost, but stressed she just wanted people to vote.
“I’ll be disappointed. I’ll probably have to work harder to afford healthcare and fight for my dreams. It’s not unrealistic. I just think it will be more challenging with Hillary as president. I’m not going to riot. Not all Trump supporters disrespect our democracy,” she told Better Than the Weekend in 2016. “I love our democracy. As much as I want Trump to win, I don’t care if a person votes for Hillary or votes for Trump. I just want to see people, especially millennials, go out and vote. If you don’t vote, you don’t have the right to complain about who is in the White House or what they do. Voting is a right we should take advantage of and appreciate.”
In February 2019, more than two years after the pictures and interview were published, Zelasko started a new job as an art teacher at the Grove School in Connecticut. According to the lawsuit, Zelasko “performed her job responsibilities well, was a good employee, as evidenced by a lack of discipline, and positive feedback from her superiors, including Peter Chorney.”
On April 3, Chorney called Zelasko and said he had been sent “internet postings” that concerned him. He told her it would be in her “best interests” to resign from the school, according to the lawsuit.
Zelasko replied in an email, “I am not going to resign for expressing my views that I believe in and exercising my constitutional rights. I don’t see how the views I express in these articles interfere with my ability to perform any of the functions of my job in any way, as I have been doing so without issue through the present. If you do not want me at the school anymore, please let me know but I intend on being at school on Monday to perform my job duties unless you tell me otherwise.”
According to the lawsuit, Chorney replied that her “credibility” was a concern because she was a role model to students. On April 5, Chorney sent her a letter terminating her employment at the school, according to the lawsuit.
Chorney wrote, “We viewed and read these postings and saw that some photos use assault weapons to cover your private parts. In one photo you are covering your breasts with American flags and sticking out your tongue.” He continued, “We did not know about these postings when you were hired, so seeing and reading them came as quite a shock.”
2. She Is Seeking More Than $15,000 in Damages, Reinstatement of Her Job or Compensation for Lost Wages & Punitive Damages
Zelasko is seeking more than $15,000 in damages, along with costs and attorney fees, reinstatement of her job or front pay and punitive damages, according to the lawsuit.
Her attorney says in the lawsuit that Zelasko’s exercise of her free speech rights didn’t substantially interfere with her job performance or the working relationship between herself and the school.
“Defendant terminated plaintiff’s employment on account of her exercise of her rights to freedom of expressions, and in particular, her fervent support for then-candidate Donald J. Trump, her vocal promotion of 2nd Amendment rights, her stance on immigration issues and the artistic expression depicted in the article’s accompanying photographs,” attorney Matthew Paradisi, of the Hartford-based law firm Cicchiello & Cicchiello, wrote. “As a result of the defendant’s unlawful retaliatory conduct, plaintiff has sustained lost wages, has sustained significant emotional distress, has been deprived of the benefits of gainful employment into the future and has incurred or will incur attorneys’ fees and costs, all to her loss and detriment.”
Zelasko told Better Than the Weekend in 2016, “My dream is for more people to be able to be who they are and not scrutinized by other people. People say they don’t judge, but there’s that small time frame, where everybody does judge. They decide whether or not they want to be for something or against it, and then they make that judgement. People should be more open.”
3. Zelasko Says Some People Were Surprised That She Decided to Support Trump, but Says She Backed Him for His Views on Guns, the Economy & Immigration
Chelsy Zelasko said that when some people heard she was supporting Trump, they were shocked, according to Better Than the Weekend.
“If they’re not voting for Trump, they’re appalled. I can understand someone not agreeing with my choice, but this election is different than the last time I voted, because people are outraged,” she said during the 2016 interveiw. “They can’t grasp that a college-educated women who voted for Obama in 2012 is voting for the likes of him — simply based off of remarks he made that has nothing to do with his policies.”
Zelasko explained why she was supporting Trump:
He’s going to create jobs for the middle, working class by eliminating the ability to outsource jobs to other countries. He’s going to protect the Second Amendment. I don’t think it should be easy to get a gun, but I also think more of the focus needs to be on the black market backdoor sellers. Just like an addict who wants cocaine or heroin, if someone wants a gun to commit a murder, they’ll find one. He’s going to protect my right to keep automatic weapons. Some people think we don’t need them, but if an intruder is in my house who might rape me or kill me, I don’t want to shoot and miss. I don’t want the gun to jam. The more time you give someone else, the less time you have to protect yourself.
Also, he’s going to make sure the people who are illegally residing in our country go to the country they came from. I feel like we just keep immigrants in this limbo of being in our country, but not being a citizen. Here’s the thing. Just because Trump wants to protect our borders doesn’t mean he doesn’t want foreigners to have a chance at the American Dream. He actually wants to protect the American Dream for the people who can follow the rules. I want him to protect my right to experience the American Dream.
Zelasko said Trump would help her reach her goal of owning her own business. She told the website, “He’s going to cut taxes for businesses so they can employ more American people. Less tax will allow me to reach my dream and build a team of hardworking Americans.”
4. Zelasko Is a Pennsylvania Native Who Graduated From Keystone College, Where She Studied Art, & She Says Her Dream Is to Open Her Own Glassblowing Studio
Chelsy Zelasko is a native of Shavertown, Pennsylvania, which is in Luzerne County, near Wilkes-Barre and about 25 miles away from Scranton. She is a graduate of Greater Nanticoke Area High School and Keystone College. She graduated with a degree in visual arts in 2014.
Prior to working as a teacher and along with working as artist, Zelasko was a makeup artist, bank teller and operations manager at Sephora. Zelasko told Better Than the Weekend, “I’d like to own my own business one day and open my own glassblowing studio.”
She was also featured in a 2017 profile in the Weekender, as the “Model of the Week,” and she said her ideal job is, ” I’d own my own glassblowing studio on the West Coast. I fell in love with the art while away at school.”
5. The Grove School Says the Photos Were Not Appropriate for a Teacher Who Works With Adolescents With Emotional & Learning Issues
The Grove School’s executive director, Peter Chorney, said in an email to Zelasko, according to the lawsuit, “Although you have been a capable teacher so far, you can no longer serve that role for us…We do not believe you can serve as a role model for these adolescents and as a school with a public presence and a community identity, The Grove School cannot allow itself to be associated with this kind of behavior. We ask that you not contact our students or their families an that you do not come onto our property without consent.”
In her interview with Better Than the Weekend, Zelasko was asked whether Trump is a good role model.
“I don’t think Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton should have the burden of being someone’s role model,” she replied. “That’s a parents job to guide a person and be a role model until they’re old enough to make their own decisions. The president’s job isn’t to be our role model. Their job is to run this country, keep us safe, and boost the economy.”
According to its website, Grove School, which is owned and run by Chorney’s father, Richard Chorney, “is a unique, wholistic, Therapeutic Boarding School with an attentive milieu, individual psychotherapy, and personalized education planning, primarily for college bound, but also for adolescents with other more vocationally-oriented interests.”
Richard Chorney writes on the website, “Our students are guided to look at themselves and their behaviors in a caring, positive, and creative environment which encourages their growth and interests, and helps them to reach their potential.”
He adds, “Our students either return home to complete their academics or move on to college or other post-graduate opportunities, including entry into our Transition program that provides continuing assistance with social skills development along with part-time college, vocational, and/or work opportunities in their area of interest. The Grove program assists students in learning and achieving success at their own pace, within a structured framework. There is the freedom to make mistakes but also the responsibility and expectation to manage reasoned consequences. We have rules and moral expectations within a strong, reality-based infrastructure. All students need to develop an identifiable and realistic plan.”