Stonington school board votes to begin Chokas investigation

Stonington — The Board of Education on Thursday night voted unanimously to launch an independent investigation into how school officials handled the numerous complaints they received that former high school teacher and coach Timothy Chokas inappropriately touched students dating back to at least 2013.

The board also began discussions about the scope and procedure of such an investigation and plans to meet in the next few weeks to iron out those details. Board members also began suggesting names of attorneys who could conduct the probe.

In the public comment section of the meeting before the vote, a former member of the high school’s career center became the first current or former district employee to criticize how the allegations were handled.

Kate Milde, who worked in the school for two and a half years before leaving last year, implored the school board to conduct an independent investigation, saying she had seen those affected by Chokas’ alleged actions. “This is a crisis. It’s worth every cent to get to the bottom of this. Your resistance to do the right thing and inaction is the reason this is a crisis,” she said.

Asked why she decided to speak out now, Milde said, “I’ve had enough. It's time someone from the school system stood up for these kids.”

She said Chokas’ alleged sexual harassment of female students was well known among teachers and staff members. Teachers union President Michael Freeman has not responded to emails asking if any of his members ever filed complaints about Chokas with school officials, state Department of Children and Families or police.

Milde also revealed that she was the staff member who in January 2019 brought a female student, who told her Chokas was touching a female classmate and making inappropriate comments to her, to Assistant Principal Neal Curland.

That incident led to Chokas being allowed to resign with his full salary of $81,396 and benefits through the end of the school year. The school system also agreed not to fire Chokas or disclose any information concerning his employment to anyone, except as required by law.

The district is fighting The Day's Freedom of Information request for an unredacted copy of the school system memo that details the girl's complaints, which were corroborated by other students. No record of those complaint, like many others made about him dating back to at least 2013, was ever placed in Chokas' personnel file.

Since last June, when The Day published the first of a series of stories about the allegations against Chokas and how they were handled, the majority of school board members have opposed an investigation, saying they wanted to wait until state Child Advocate Sarah Eagan completes her review of the school system’s policies and procedures regarding sexual harassment.

Eagan said this week she hopes to have her report done by March. However, it is not expected to include interviews with the numerous young women who say Chokas made inappropriate comments and touched them inappropriately, nor teachers, parents or coaches.

Board member Alisa Morrison, who has called for an investigation since last summer, said after Thursday's vote that she was happy board members who had been blocking an investigation were finally deciding to proceed with one. Morrison had been joined by Jack Morehouse and Heidi Simmons in calling for an investigation.

“It was necessary then and it is necessary now,” Morrison said. “And I think we’re going about it the right way.”

Before voting to launch the investigation, school board members on Thursday again listened to members of the public urging them to investigate.

Resident John Nazzaro, an attorney and former Superior Court judge, told the board that if what he has read about the Chokas matter is correct, “we have a serious problem here.”

“This is an issue worthy of an investigation. We have got to do better,” he said.

Nazzaro said that if the board undertakes an investigation, it should determine whether there were policies in place to handle the complaints, if they were followed and if not, why. “And, going forward, what can we do to make sure children and youth in the schools are protected?” he said.

He also cautioned the board about the scope of the investigation, saying it would become a “gargantuan” task and very costly to look at 10 years of allegations.

With current and former female students who have spoken to or contacted The Day and those who have posted comments about their and other students interactions with Chokas dating back to 2004, there could be hundreds of young women to be possibly interviewed, along with school administrators, teachers, coaches, staff members and parents.

Former school board member Faith Leitner, who five times had come to board meetings since last summer and asked members to launch an investigation, told the board, “We entrusted our superintendent and staff to keep our students safe. This is not a personnel matter. It’s a safety matter.”

She told the board she is still waiting for Riley, who was at Thursday’s meeting, to comment on the issue. Riley, who sits with the board, did not answer.

Resident Noreen Kepple said that while sexual harassment can be a gray area, a girl who experiences it knows when it happens and then carries it inside of her. She said the students were let down by school officials who “watered down” the complaints by referring to them as "concerns" or "interactions." She said an independent investigation can generate trust in the community.

Board Chairwoman Alexa Garvey said she has spoken to four attorneys about how to proceed with such an investigation and the length of time to complete it would depend on the number of people who speak to investigators. She said it would likely begin with interviews of administrators, requesting documents, and interviewing past and present students.

She said no one would be required to participate; they would have to be willing participants. She stressed the investigator would produce a written report. Board members agreed they would interview attorneys they are considering hiring.

Simmons said the investigation should be done by a female attorney, due to the nature of the allegations and that the scope should be different than the child advocate's.

Morehouse said the entire board “wants a thoughtful and transparent investigation.”

“It's not a whitewash. We want to do the right thing,” board member Farouk Rajab added.

At 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 27, at the former Pawcatuck Middle School, the school board will hold a public workshop to begin discussing issues, such as how to improve the complaint reporting process and the interview process for those filing a complaint, how to make students making complaints feel comfortable, how to better involve parents in the complaint process and forming community partnerships to address the issue of sexual harassment.

Resident Jim Spellman urged the board to have a DCF compliance officer talk to the board about the state’s mandatory reporting law concerning suspected child abuse.

The numerous complaints against Chokas, who also served as the girls’ assistant golf and soccer coach, include that he allegedly placed his legs on girls’ laps, touched their backs and thighs, stroked their hair, massaged their shoulders, pushed up against them, tickled them and struck one girl in the buttocks with a cane he was using. They also allege he asked girls about their boyfriends and invited them to have breakfast with him in his classroom. The alleged touching took place in his classroom, an adjacent photo darkroom and at golf and soccer practice sessions.

Those who have spoken to The Day say the touching was pervasive and occurred daily.

Riley and high school Principal Mark Friese have testified under oath they did not consider various reports about inappropriate touching and comments lodged against Chokas by students, referred to in various school documents and emails in 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2019 and from the girls themselves, as complaints. Instead, they considered them “reports,” “interactions with people” and “concerns” expressed by students and others. These categorizations meant that the complaints were not placed in Chokas’ personnel file and not released to The Day when the newspaper requested them last year.

In addition, Chokas was never disciplined for his alleged actions, according to school officials. A review by The Day shows school officials failed to follow the district’s own sexual harassment policies.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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