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    Sunday, April 14, 2024

    State child advocate to inquire about Stonington's handling of student complaints

    Stonington — The state Office of the Child Advocate wants more details on Stonington Public Schools' response to four female students' 2017 complaints that former high school teacher Timothy Chokas engaged in unwelcome and inappropriate physical contact.

    The students alleged to Principal Mark Friese and Director of Guidance Margo Crowley that Chokas, a media and technology teacher since 2003 and an assistant golf coach, engaged in pervasive unwanted contact, including touching their backs and thighs, massaging shoulders and leaning up against them.

    But no complaints or record of any disciplinary action is included in Chokas' personnel file, which The Day obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. In January 2019, a month after officials received another complaint of inappropriate contact with a female student in 2018, Chokas and the district signed a confidential resignation settlement, in which the district agreed to pay his $81,396 salary and health insurance.

    "Concerns raised by The Day's reporting raise questions regarding how the district responded to what looks like complaints from multiple girls seeming to have not resulted in action until 2019," state Child Advocate Sarah Eagan said in an interview Tuesday. "I think the timeline raises questions. We are going to make an inquiry for additional information to understand more fully (the district's) response."

    Chokas, who did not respond to a message on Tuesday, agreed not to sue the district. The district agreed not to fire him under a state law allowing a school system to start the process of terminating a tenured teacher for six reasons, including moral misconduct, insubordination, incompetence and ineffectiveness. The district also agreed not to disclose anything regarding Chokas' employment or separation, except as required by law.

    Three other former students, including one who complained to school officials in 2017 and another who graduated eight years ago, came forward in interviews this week to allege similar misconduct by Chokas. The students, between 15 and 16 years old at the time of the alleged contact, said Chokas routinely made them uncomfortable by putting his hands or arms on their shoulders, necks or lower backs. Chokas did not exhibit the same type of physical contact with males, the former students said.

    News of the allegations sparked outcry among students and parents over social media, and Superintendent Van Riley and Friese wrote letters to parents on Tuesday. Riley and Friese told parents that while they cannot provide details about specific cases due to legal constraints related to personnel issues and individual students, they thoroughly investigate every complaint.

    "Our top priority is always student safety," Riley wrote. "Students have the right to attend school and not be subject to inappropriate behavior. We encourage students and parents to share concerns with our administrative and counseling staff. We also have a legal obligation to employees to provide due process relative to any complaint."

    Friese wrote that the high school "fosters a culture of trust and communication between students and adults with the number one priority being student safety. That is exactly why we take any and all allegations so seriously."

    "We can share with you, without reservation, that in both incidents referenced in the recent articles where a student came forward with a concern, we investigated thoroughly and acted decisively based on the evidence brought forward and obtained from our investigation," Friese wrote.

    Riley wrote that administrators "followed strict guidelines and procedures related to the issues about the teacher in question. I have reviewed the procedures in detail with the administration and I am certain they followed proper protocols within the confines of the law."

    While the district has not directly discussed the reasons behind Chokas' resignation, Riley's letter ended by saying "The final result is the teacher resigned and is no longer employed by Stonington Public Schools."

    Riley initially declined to say whether officials 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 or neglect or is in imminent risk of serious harm.

    On Monday evening, Riley said officials "did file a DCF report" and "DCF decided not to investigate it further," but he did not specify when a report was filed. He did not immediately respond to phone messages Tuesday afternoon and evening.

    DCF spokesman Gary Kleeblatt on Tuesday emphasized that the agency cannot speak about any specific cases or reports. But he said if DCF investigates a report, "we would want to speak with alleged victims."

    Olivia Bayer and Grace Williams, two of the Stonington graduates who complained about Chokas in 2017, said in interviews that they were never contacted by DCF or police.

    Though the district has said it involves all stakeholders, including parents, in its investigations of complaints, Bayer's and Williams' mothers said they were never contacted by school officials after their daughters complained about Chokas.

    The school district has said it will not release any documentation showing whether police or DCF were notified about Chokas' alleged actions. Officials cited Freedom of Information Act decisions finding that state law gives public agencies "a broad grant of confidentiality" in connection with information involving possible child abuse cases.

    Reports 'mirror other cases'

    Eagan said her office would send a request for more information from the district this week; the office typically gives districts a few weeks to respond. Her office's inquiry, she said, likely would determine whether any records show reports on the 2017 complaints.

    Eagan said that depending on the nature of a complaint, school districts cannot hold off on filing a report with DCF or police while conducting their own investigations. If school officials want to investigate suspected abuse or neglect, they can do so concurrently while still following mandated reporter law and contacting authorities within 24 hours, she said.

    She acknowledged that determining whether a complaint meets the legal standard of "a reasonable suspicion of abuse or neglect" that would require reporting to authorities can be "tricky" and "a gray area."

    Child abuse, according to state law, occurs when a child "has been inflicted with physical injury or injuries other than by accidental means, has injuries that are at variance with the history given of them, or is in a condition that is the result of maltreatment, including, but not limited to, malnutrition, sexual molestation or exploitation, deprivation of necessities, emotional maltreatment or cruel punishment."

    "Sometimes you get into this, 'What are the magic words to leap over that threshold?'" she said. But she added that "collective, unwanted, intrusive characterizations from girls" mirrored some of the reports of harassment, grooming and abuse her office has investigated in other districts.

    She described sexual misconduct and harassment as a pervasive problem nationally, saying school districts "need to have a thorough and sophisticated prevention and response framework from a mandated reporting standpoint and a Title IX standpoint." Title IX is the federal law prohibiting discrimination based on sex, including sexual harassment.

    A message left with Stonington High School's Title IX coordinator, Director of Special Services Allison Van Etten, was not immediately returned Tuesday afternoon.

    A September 2018 Title IX notification to students notes that discrimination among students is prohibited and that complaints regarding sexual harassment, bullying, racial harassment and transgender issues should be directed to Van Etten.

    Board of Education attorney Kyle McClain noted Tuesday that existing board policy on harassment "unambiguously states that 'harassment, in any form, will not be tolerated in this district. This applies to all students, staff members, board members, parents, vendors, contracted individuals, volunteers, other employees and other visitors.'"

    The school also has required nondiscrimination and student grievance policies in place; violations of such policies can lead to a range of disciplinary actions, including termination.

    The board's policies note that examples of sexual harassment could include sexual flirtations, advances, touching or propositions, graphic or suggestive comments about an individual's dress or body, innuendo and several other overt or subtle sexual actions that could create intimidating, hostile or offensive environments.

    "It's the district's job to make sure students know about it," Eagan said, regarding Title IX and sexual harassment policies.

    Vin Mustaro, the senior staff associate for policy services at the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, provided a model policy used by some districts that specifies "inappropriate or unwelcomed" touching, patting or pinching or "intentional brushing against a student's or an employee's body" as examples of sexual harassment.