Stonington school board must demand answers

The evidence shows that high-ranking Stonington school officials failed to act forthrightly when confronted with reports from multiple female students, over several years, that a teacher/coach was touching them and interacting with them inappropriately.

These same officials failed to document the record of the behavior and reached a deal with the teacher that would allow him to move on to other school systems without any official record of his misbehavior trailing him.

They also did not, until relatively recently, refer the student complaints to the state Department of Children and Families. Adults in supervisory positions are required by law to contact the state protection agency when suspicions of child abuse arise. It is hard to believe that the teacher’s sustained actions would have been allowed to continue if DCF had entered the picture years earlier.

The duty of the Board of Education is to get to the bottom of what happened. The job of board members is not to try to protect school officials or sugarcoat unpleasant facts. It may be human nature to simply want to move on, but it is not the right thing to do. The right thing is to fully establish what happened. Only a thorough review and findings can lead to corrective actions that prevent such behavior ever being tolerated again and regain the confidence of concerned parents and students. 

Getting at the facts could lead to disciplinary actions against decision makers. Having to make such tough decisions comes with the responsibilities of serving on a school board.

What is known is that going back as far as 2004, and continuing over the years, girls have complained that Tim Chokas, both in his capacity as a teacher and as a soccer and golf coach, touched, stroked and tickled them in ways that made them uncomfortable. He also, in some cases, asked about their romantic lives.

In a recent Freedom of Information Commission hearing, Superintendent of Schools Van Riley and high school Principal Mark Friese — both familiar with complaints going back to at least 2013 — presented a supercilious semantic argument as to why these student accounts did not end up in Chokas’ personnel file. They were, argued the administrators, “reports” or “concerns” or “interactions” but not “complaints.” Not being complaints, they were not placed in the personnel file.

This newspaper, in its efforts to get at the facts, sought all the information about the student complaints filed over the many years, only to be told the file was void of any.

Are there other problems that have been handled as off-the-record "concerns" and not on-the-record, documented personnel matters?

The administrators testified that they did not even consider it to be a complaint of misconduct when a City of Groton police detective, in 2013, disclosed to Riley and Friese that a girl had told him that Chokas had touched her bare midriff while in a classroom photography darkroom.

Think about that. A police officer reports that a girl has allegedly been fondled and no record of that report makes its way into the personnel file.

Also not found in his record is the fact Chokas spent time on paid administrative leave in connection with the complaints — oh, excuse us, “reports” — of inappropriate touching. Or that on two occasions he was instructed to come up with plans to avoid touching the female students in his coaching and teaching capacities.

Here is a plan: Keep your hands to yourself.

Whether because reports of adult misconduct in other local schools systems had heightened sensitivity to the seriousness of the matter, or because past warnings had not been heeded, finally, in January 2019, a student report of misconduct led to discussions with Chokas and to his resignation, as well as a report to the DCF. Yet Chokas retained his full salary and benefits through the end of the school year in June. Most troublingly, the administration agreed under the deal, and without school board knowledge, not to disclose any information about Chokas' past employment problems, except as required by law.

Letting those suspected of such misconduct to quietly move on to other assignments has not worked out well for other institutions or for victims.

Three school board members have called for an independent investigation into how Riley and other school officials handled these student reports concerning Chokas’ behavior. All board members should join them.

 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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