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    Sunday, April 14, 2024

    Stonington teacher, subject of student complaints, resigned mid-year

    Stonington — In late spring of 2017, four female students at Stonington High School met with Principal Mark Friese and Director of Guidance Margo Crowley to complain that Timothy Chokas, a teacher and assistant golf coach, repeatedly had engaged in unwanted and inappropriate physical contact with them and other classmates.

    Some of the unwanted contact came during golf instruction, the students said. Other contact was in the classroom where they said Chokas placed his legs on girls’ laps, touched their backs and thighs, massaged shoulders, leaned up against them and tickled and stroked the hair of one girl.

    Some say they avoided being near Chokas, who had worked in the school since 2003, and three quit the golf team, according to one of the students who complained to school officials because he made them feel uncomfortable.

    Despite that meeting between the four students and two school administrators, no complaints or record of any disciplinary action is included in Chokas' personnel file, which The Day received through a Freedom of Information Act request.

    In December 2018, the school system received a new complaint that Chokas had inappropriate physical contact with a female student in his classroom. In January, Chokas resigned. A separation agreement between the school department and Chokas does not give a reason for the resignation.

    Two of the female students who met with Friese and Crowley two years ago, 2017 graduates Olivia Bayer and Grace Williams, said in interviews that Friese and Crowley assured them they would speak to Chokas and take care of the problem immediately. The third student declined to speak on the record while the fourth could not be reached for comment.  

    “It’s very upsetting. Who knows, if something was done two or three years ago (when we complained) maybe nothing would have happened now," Williams said. "It's something everyone in the school knew about and a lot of teachers knew about."

    Bayer said she was surprised to learn her 2017 complaint was not in Chokas' personnel file. 

    "It's like you don't matter," she said. "I know he's been in the (school) system so long. It's like he's being protected."  

    "We didn't want it to happen to anyone else," she added about why she and the other girls went to the school administrators more than two years ago to complain. "We warned every girl going into his classroom not to take his class."

    Reached at his North Stonington home earlier this month, Chokas declined to comment on his resignation or the allegations against him. It is unclear if he has landed a new teaching job.  

    The agreement

    School officials, who refused to discuss the reasons behind Chokas’ resignation, signed a six-page “confidential” release and settlement agreement with him on Jan. 23, in which the school system agreed to pay his $81,396 salary and health insurance using his accumulated sick days through June 30. Chokas was not paid the $3,224 stipend that he was scheduled to earn this year as the assistant coach of the golf team.

    They also agreed not to fire Chokas under a state law that allows a school system to begin the process of terminating the contract of a tenured teacher for six reasons, including moral misconduct, insubordination or incompetence and ineffectiveness.

    The school system also agreed to not disclose any information concerning Chokas’ employment or separation from his position to anyone at any time, except as required by law. Chokas also agreed not to take legal action against the school system.

    The Day filed two Freedom of Information requests with the school, one in January and the second in April. While the school system has complied with many of the items or said no records exist, two items remain outstanding.

    School board attorney Kyle McClain informed The Day that the board will not release any documentation that shows if either the police or the state Department of Children and Families were notified about Chokas' alleged actions. The state’s mandatory reporting law requires school officials and employees to report within 24 hours if they have “reasonable cause to suspect” that a child under 18 has been the victim of abuse. McClain cited an Appellate Court ruling and a 2015 Freedom of Information decision that found that state law gives public agencies "a broad grant of confidentiality" in connection with information involving possible child abuse cases as why the school board is exempt from releasing the documents. 

    Superintendent of Schools Van Riley declined to say if the school system reported the incidents in 2017 or this past winter to local police or DCF.

    DCF spokesman Gary Kleeblatt said he was unable to say if school officials reported the incidents, as all such reports are considered child protection records under state law. 

    While Riley declined to discuss the specific allegations against Chokas, he said in general settlement agreements are made when both the school system and an employee agree it is time for the employee move on. Depending on the situation, he said, agreeing to a settlement can save the town money as opposed to firing an employee, which can involve legal fees. 

    But he added, "We always protect our students. If we need to terminate an employee to protect our students, we will. We may or may not contact police and report to DCF, and we have in the past. We certainly take all complaints very seriously and do a full investigation."

    Riley said it would be up to Friese to investigate, determine if a complaint is corroborated and should go in an employee's personnel file and decide if police and DCF need to be contacted.      

    Both Friese and Crowley declined to be interviewed about how they handled the girls' complaints but issued this statement to The Day: "While we cannot comment on personnel matters, I will share with you that we take all student concerns very seriously and investigate them completely to ensure our students have a safe environment. These investigations always involve the appropriate stakeholders to include our district leadership and, if appropriate, the Stonington PD through our SRO (school resource officer)."

    Riley provided The Day with an additional statement from Friese that read: "As educators we are bound to maintain the privacy of all parties involved when we investigate a concern. I do not envision you having a discussion with any one staff member about specific actions regarding this case without breaching that privacy or giving the misleading appearance of evasiveness when we do not answer questions due to confidentiality. That is why I haven't in the past, nor will I in this instance, have a conversation with you about this or any case involving a staff member or student. What I will provide is the following: that SHS staff investigates all concerns brought to our attention. We involve all stakeholders (parents, district office personnel, parents, and Stonington PD) as appropriate to ensure we provide a safe environment."

    Both Olivia Bayer's mother, Marci Crompton, and Grace Williams' mother, Lynn Williams, said they were never contacted by Friese, Crowley or Riley after their daughters complained about Chokas.

    "They never contacted me or said anything. I assumed they were doing an investigation of him," Crompton said.

    Students detail their complaints 

    Bayer was enrolled in Chokas' media and communications classes her sophomore, junior and senior years and was a novice member on the golf team her last two years.

    She said that one day after school her senior year, she was on her cellphone with her mother when Chokas sat down next to her and asked who she was talking to. She said he then grabbed her thigh about halfway up her leg.

    "I told him, 'Back off, buddy. That's wrong,'" Bayer said.

    One day during instruction at golf practice, she said Chokas came up from behind, wrapped his arms around her, placed her hands into the proper grip and placed his pelvis up against her buttocks.

    "You don't have to do this. There's another way to show me," Bayer said she told him as she pushed his arms away.

    She said Chokas would sometimes place his knee on one leg of girls while they were sitting and then a hand on their shoulder. When she suffered a black eye from playing basketball, she said Chokas tried to touch her face. She said he had physical contact with girls almost daily.

    Bayer said that when she and the other girls told Friese and Crowley about the incidents, alleging Chokas was repeatedly touching girls and making them feel uncomfortable, she said they nodded and listened and said, "we'll figure it out."

    Bayer said she later thought it was odd that Friese and Crowley did not ask her or the other girls to put their complaints in writing, which is what she said police had her do a few months earlier, when she reported her cellphone had been stolen at the school.

    Isabella Natale, who graduated from the high school in 2016 and was not in the meeting with Friese and Crowley, said in an interview that during her freshman year she was allowed to leave classes early to get to her next class because she was on crutches after suffering a knee injury playing soccer. She would arrive at Chokas' class before other students. She said he would often walk over and briefly massage her shoulders.

    "He was the cool teacher but looking back on it, it was weird and creepy. By the end of my time on crutches I didn't want to be there early with him because I got the sense he was creepy," she said.

    One day she said he sat next to her and gently punched her thigh saying that maybe she would get a charley horse. Another time she said she was standing outside the library, when he took the cane he was using for his leg own leg injury and slapped her buttocks with it.

    "He did it in the hallway in front of everybody," she said.

    Natale said she never reported the incidents to school officials because at the time she did not feel she had enough to report and she eventually got out of his classroom.

    Williams, one of those who met with Friese and Crowley, said she was enrolled in Chokas' media classes for four years because she was considering pursuing that field of study in college.

    She said she saw Chokas massage the shoulders of numerous girls, touch their thighs and rest one of his legs on theirs in the classroom. She said she told Crowley and Friese that Chokas made her feel uncomfortable and that he was touching students inappropriately.

    "It's common sense you shouldn't be touching people that way," she said.

    Williams said Crowley reassured the students that the issue would be addressed immediately and they would speak with Chokas.

    Williams said she decided to report what she saw because "it was clear that the issue was not being resolved. It wasn't happening to me personally but I felt like I needed to say something because no one else was going to."     

    The school's athletic director, Bryan Morrone, referred questions to Riley while teacher Arthur Howe, who was the head coach of the golf team until this season, did not respond to an email and phone call seeking comment. Friese said in a statement provided to The Day by Riley that both Morrone and Howe "state that they never received any concerns from players or parents at any time."

    Asked if police had received any complaints about Chokas, Stonington Police Capt. Todd Olson said that if the department had, it would not be able to release information about them if they involved juveniles or proved to be unsubstantiated.

    Chokas has never been criminally charged in connection with his employment at the school.

    Board of Education Chairwoman Alexa Garvey said board members were not told about the complaints against Chokas or included in the settlement discussions and were told he had resigned after it occurred. She said board members do not get involved in such personnel issues or settlement discussions because members later may have to hear an appeal of an employee's termination.

    In a later email, she said the only comment she could make, per instructions from the school board attorney, "is that for student safety and privacy reasons I am unable to comment regarding individual reports, but that reports are made to DCF when appropriate and required."

    When Chokas' resignation appeared on the monthly personnel report presented to the school board at its Feb. 14 meeting, no members raised questions or commented about it.