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    Sunday, April 14, 2024

    More students allege misconduct by former Stonington teacher

    Stonington — Recently revealed complaints that a former Stonington High School teacher allegedly engaged in unwanted and inappropriate physical contact with several female students sparked outcry among parents and inspired more students to come forward with similar accusations on Monday.

    Timothy Chokas, a high school technology and media teacher and assistant golf coach, resigned in January, a month after officials received a complaint regarding inappropriate contact with a female student in his classroom. Chokas' resignation — which came without explanation by school officials but with a confidential settlement awarding him his $81,396 salary and health insurance — also came almost two years after four female students brought complaints of unwanted contact to Principal Mark Friese and Director of Guidance Margo Crowley.

    Outraged students and parents took to Facebook Monday to share experiences and question how complaints — including that Chokas placed his legs on girls' laps, touched their backs and thighs, massaged shoulders or leaned up against them — were addressed by officials.

    Sara Belchik, a 19-year-old Stonington graduate, said in an interview Monday that she "could not quantify" the number of times Chokas placed his hands on her and made her uncomfortable during a photojournalism class in the 2016 spring semester. She said the contact sometimes occurred in the classroom in front of other students and several times when she was alone with Chokas in the dark room as she developed black-and-white photos.

    "You have a machine projecting an image onto paper, and have to line it up perfectly, right?" she said. "He would move close to me to observe what I'm doing. That's when he'd put his arm on my lower back or shoulder. I was in a confined space trying to perform a task and he got in my space."

    Belchik, now a student at the University of Illinois, said she was passionate about photography and that Chokas, whom she described as "nice and personable" when she began the class, let her take home extra film and use the dark room for extended periods of time for her own projects. "He let me use additional supplies, and I thought it was fantastic that I get to do this for free. Then I realized what was going on."

    Belchik and other female students said Chokas frequently massaged their shoulders in class. Belchik and Cassie Manfredi, a 19-year-old graduate who took multiple classes taught by Chokas, said Monday that his classroom's chairs had wheels, with Manfredi saying "he'd wheel his chair over to ours and he'd be helping us with something" while initiating unwanted contact, including "touching on the thighs."

    "It was a lot of unnecessary touching while talking," Manfredi said. "Hands on shoulders, massaging our shoulders. Gentle punches and play-fighting."

    Manfredi said Chokas stopped initiating contact with her after she verbally challenged him on matters related to grading and the handling of school projects. She said she was one of several students to bring complaints about the physical contact to Crowley, while Belchik said it was difficult and too intimidating at the time to speak with her parents or school officials about it.

    "I felt insecure because I wasn't sure what to do," Belchik said, describing a time Chokas "came up behind me and was massaging my shoulders. I told him 'No' and tried to move away but he didn't take the hint. There were times you couldn't say no because you felt you were going to get in trouble."

    Multiple former students who posted on the Stonington Community Forum on Facebook that they experienced or witnessed similar physical contact from Chokas declined to comment on the record Monday, saying they didn't want their names or families dragged into a story.

    Superintendent: DCF notified

    School officials have declined to discuss the complaints they received prior to Chokas' resignation. They agreed in the settlement not to disclose any information regarding Chokas' employment or separation, and while they said they investigate all concerns brought to their attention and involve all stakeholders, including parents, multiple parents say officials never contacted them.

    Messages left with Chokas, Friese and Crowley and several Board of Education members were not immediately answered Monday.

    Last week, 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 the state Department of Children and Families. 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. But on Monday evening, Riley said that school officials "did file a DCF report" and "DCF decided not to investigate it further."

    DCF has said state law prohibits it from confirming whether school officials have reported such incidents and from discussing specific cases. Stonington Police Capt. Todd Olson previously said that if the department had received any complaints, 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.

    In a previous email, Board of Education Chairwoman Alexa Garvey said the only comment she could make, per instructions from school board attorney Kyle McClain, "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."

    Reached by phone Monday, board member Deborah Downie reiterated what Garvey recently told The Day when asked about the case: that the Board of Education does not get involved in personnel issues or settlement discussions because it may have to hear an appeal of an employee's termination.

    "We need to be neutral," Downie said.

    Asked at what point a school board might tell school officials to directly address parents' concerns related to such allegations of unwanted physical contact, Downie said, "We're going to follow the law."

    Beth Albamonti, one of many Stonington parents expressing anger following news of the complaints on social media, said, "You never think it could happen at your child's school."

    Albamonti said her daughters did not experience unwanted physical contact from Chokas. She joined Belchik and Manfredi in arguing that school officials should look into students' allegations further.

    "School is supposed to be a fun place where you learn things," Belchik said. "Instead, it became a memory of uncomfortableness."

    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. A third student declined to speak on the record while the fourth could not be reached for comment.

    Riley, who said Monday he was unaware of additional complaints over social media, reiterated that whenever the district receives "a concern or complaint by a student or parent we fully investigate it. Student safety is our most important concern."

    When asked about students and parents who may feel like nothing happened as a result of complaints, Riley explained that due to personnel and privacy concerns, the complainant is not necessarily informed of disciplinary actions taken, if any.

    "Sometimes, depending on the severity, there might be a verbal warning after a realization of how a particular act was perceived by a student," he said. "There can be notes and directions and further actions, such as suspension or termination. There's a progression."

    Asked if the district might further investigate how the matter was handled, Riley said Chokas was "no longer an employee" and said parents have not complained to him about how officials responded. But, he added, "I'll always listen to a parent concern, whatever the issue is."