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    Sunday, April 14, 2024

    Emails show Stonington received first Chokas complaint 6 years ago

    Stonington — School officials received complaints as far back as 2013 that former high school teacher Timothy Chokas was inappropriately touching student athletes, according to recently released emails.

    They also reveal that the school system failed to release disciplinary records on Chokas after they were requested by The Day on two occasions earlier this year. In response to formal Freedom of Information requests, school officials had told The Day that there were no records of complaints against Chokas or his having been disciplined, despite numerous girls saying they had complained about him inappropriately touching them and other students to school officials in 2016, 2017 and 2019.   

    An email reveals, however, that a “formal letter of concern” written by high school Principal Mark Friese was placed in Chokas' “building file” in April 2017 after five girls alleged he repeatedly touched them.

    The letter, also referred to as a memo, stated the need for Chokas "to develop strategies to prevent female students in your charge from feeling uncomfortable due to your actions and mannerisms." 

    In the April 6, 2017, letter, Friese told Chokas that over the past two school years there had been two different concerns identified that required school administration to investigate reports of interactions between him and female students. Those complaints were not detailed. 

    In each of these cases, Friese wrote, “there was no finding of inappropriate contact or actions." Friese then stated that another four students had shared their concerns with the administration that Chokas' actions had made them feel uncomfortable.

    “Once again the investigation by the administration did not reveal that any of these acts were intended to harm or cause them to feel uncomfortable,” he wrote.

    But 25 female students dating back to 2004 have told The Day, including several who said they talked to Friese and Director of Guidance Margo Crowley in 2017, that Chokas repeatedly touched them and other classmates, making them feel uncomfortable.

    The complaints include that Chokas, who also served as the girls' assistant golf coach, allegedly placed his legs on girls' laps, touched their backs and thighs, massaged shoulders, leaned up against them, tickled them and struck one girl in the buttocks with a cane he was using. The alleged touching took place in his classroom, an adjacent photo darkroom and at golf practice. Those who have spoken to The Day say the touching was pervasive and occurred daily. 

    Chokas, a technology and media teacher who was hired in 2003, resigned in January after school officials received a complaint that he had inappropriate contact with a female student.

    School officials signed a confidential settlement agreement that paid him his $81,396 salary and health insurance through June 30. They also agreed not to fire Chokas and not disclose any information concerning his 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.

    After The Day published several stories about the allegations against Chokas, Sarah Eagan, who heads the state Office of the Child Advocate, asked school officials to provide her with details about how they responded to the complaints that Friese and Crowley received in 2017. Eagan said Wednesday that her office is in the beginning stages of its review. It has requested and received information from the school system and is beginning to review those documents. Eagan could not say when the review would be complete, as she may have additional questions for the school system or have to meet with school officials. When the review is complete, she said her office would issue a findings letter that will be available to the public that could include recommendations and things the school system could improve upon. 

    Despite calls from two school board members for a review of how the Chokas issue was handled, board Chairwoman Alexa Garvey has said no investigation would take place until Eagan finishes her review.  

    The 2017 memo

    The memo from Friese to Chokas is contained in a group of emails between Friese and Superintendent Van Riley that the school system released to The Day to comply with an earlier FOI request. 

    It stated that the students who met with Friese and Crowley mentioned actions by Chokas that made them feel uncomfortable, including “rested your hand/patted them on the shoulder or upper arm, poked them in the side, reaching under their seat to adjust the mechanism while they were sitting, inquired about the relationship with their boyfriend.”

    Friese's memo did not mention the daily massaging of shoulders and the other unwanted contact the girls, in their interviews with The Day, said they told Friese and Crowley about.

    Former student Olivia Bayer, for instance, said she told them that Chokas grabbed her thigh about halfway up her leg, causing her to tell him, "Back off, buddy. That's wrong.'"

    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. 

    Although Friese told Chokas his investigation didn’t reveal that any of the acts were intended to harm or make the girls feel uncomfortable, “the fact that these female students did exhibit uncomfortable feelings due to your actions with the concerns that were brought forward in past years is a concern. They indicate a possible pattern where passive observers and then students themselves may misconstrue your actions and mannerisms to be unprofessional and therefore negatively impact the learning environment and your reputation as an educator in this school.”

    Friese ordered Chokas to develop a "personal action plan that outlines strategies and practices that will prevent your students from developing uncomfortable feelings in your classroom." 

    Friese told Chokas the memo would be kept in his building file for two years — until April 2019 — and would be reviewed quarterly with the building administration. When The Day filed its first FOI request in January 2019, which came within the two-year window, and a second in April 2019, for "any and all complaints filed against Chokas during his employment in the Stonington school system as well as any and all disciplinary records in his personnel file," the newspaper was told by the school system there were none.

    School board attorney Kyle McClain said the school system did not release the 2017 memo originally because it "is neither a written complaint nor a disciplinary record. It is a memo to Mr. Chokas discussing certain concerns and memorializing the need for a personal action plan to address those concerns."

    Last week, The Day submitted an FOI request for any complaints and disciplinary actions in the personnel files, the “building files” mentioned in the April 6, 2017, memo from Friese to Chokas, or any other school system file containing personnel information for Chokas, Friese, Crowley, former golf coach Art Howe and a current female teacher at the high school. In a separate request made June 23, The Day also requested copies of all emails between Chokas and the female teacher.

    So far, the school system has not provided The Day with the requested documents.

    The 2013 complaint

    In a Feb. 21, 2013, email, Friese told Riley he had just reviewed a complaint that Chokas, who was at the time an assistant coach of the girls' soccer team, "pats the girls on the bottom which makes some girls uncomfortable, he has also picked up a girl and held her like a baby, wears his fleece halfway unzipped without a shirt underneath." Friese said no specific players were mentioned in the complaint but he did not say if he interviewed team members and then-head coach Dave Walsh, who stepped down in 2017 after 24 seasons. Friese's email did not say who made the complaint. 

    Friese said that he and Athletic Director Bryan Morrone both talked to Chokas because of the potential seriousness of the complaints but Chokas "categorically denied the touching on the bottoms."

    In a statement to The Day last month, Friese said that both Morrone and former golf coach Howe "state that they never received any concerns from players or parents at any time" about Chokas' behavior.   

    Friese told Riley that Chokas stated he would pat them on the back but not on the bottom. He denied picking up a girl and carrying her like a baby but agreed he sometimes unzipped his shirt when it was hot.

    Friese said that he and Morrone directed Chokas to be careful with pats of encouragement. "We shared our concern for the students and how this could easily be misconstrued and he had to be careful working with young girls," he wrote.

    "Since he denied picking a girl up, we just left it at that and told him to ensure he never picks a player up," Friese wrote. He said they also talked to Chokas about appropriate coaching dress and he agreed to comply.  

    Later in the email, Friese wrote, "We have never had any concerns with Mr. Chokas in the past as a teacher or a coach. We took this seriously enough to address it with the coach and talked a great deal about perception and professionalism. I am confident moving forward that there will be no issues regarding these concerns. I think we addressed it appropriately with the information we had."

    Riley responded, "Thanks Mark. I am comfortable with your actions and decision re this situation."      

    The January 2019 complaint 

    In a heavily redacted email that he sent to Riley on Jan. 9, 2019, in regards to the latest allegation against Chokas, Friese attached the April 2017 letter of concern issued to Chokas. 

    Friese said since that time he had informally met with Chokas many times and Chokas had been observed in class many times and that, based on interviews with students and Chokas, “it was concluded that there was no deviant behavior.” 

    He said Chokas also had verbally submitted a plan and demonstrated the physical strategies he would use to minimize the opportunity to touch a student, including how he would hold a golf club in his hands and that he “would simply keep his hands in his pockets when he leaned over to look at a computer.” Additionally, he said he would not have any meetings with students alone.

    Since that time, there were no reports of any concern, Friese wrote.

    In that same Jan. 9 email to Riley, Friese included a report of an incident that occurred that day. He said that at noon that day, Crowley and Assistant Principal Neal Curland reported to him that a student had reported to another adult in the building that her friend had been inappropriately touched by a teacher and felt uncomfortable in the class.

    Crowley then interviewed the female student. Friese wrote that the general synopsis of the statement is that the male teacher who he identified as “TC “ has on numerous occasions touched the female student and made comments in a manner that caused her to feel uncomfortable.

    The school system blacked out the girl’s statement before releasing it to The Day.

    Friese added that there are other similar remarks in her statement, which are not detailed in the email, that clearly demonstrate an environment where a student feels a teacher focuses too much attention on her that include inappropriate contact. He said the student feels isolated because no other students in the class have similar attention.

    Friese added that Stonington police Youth Officer Tom Paige was in the school at the time of the complaint and was informed of the allegation.

    Friese said he called Riley and they decided to send Chokas home on paid administrative leave until further notice. He said he and Curland escorted Chokas out of the building, while Crowley commenced a report with the state Department of Children and Families. There was trouble filing an electronic report and Friese said they would continue with the submission in the morning.

    Friese wrote that a quick investigation then was commenced to corroborate the girl’s story but, due to the time of the day, only four students could be interviewed. Their statements were omitted from the documents released to The Day. Friese wrote that three of the four students confirmed a high level of focus by Chokas on the female student and they confirmed “incidents of touching and a high level of attention.” The school system also redacted from the email statements made by the students who were interviewed. 

    When Riley asked Friese two days later if the DCF report had been officially filed about Chokas, Friese wrote back saying “yes, and they did not pick up the case.” 

    Questions surround DCF reporting  

    It remains uncertain if the school system ever reported any of the other 2013, 2016 and 2017 complaints received about Chokas to DCF or police. The state's mandatory reporting law requires school officials and employees to report to DCF or police within 24 hours if they have "reasonable cause to suspect" that a child under 18 has been the victim of abuse. 

    Riley repeatedly has refused to say whether the school system reported those other incidents to DCF or police, saying school officials had investigated every concern, acted appropriately and followed all procedures.

    "I am unable to comment regarding specific student, personnel, or DCF matters," Riley said in a recent email. 

    Students and their parents who made the 2017 complaints to Friese and Crowley say they were never interviewed by DCF or local police, which is what typically occurs when a report is made. DCF does not discuss or confirm whether it receives a complaint.