Stonington school officials say reports of Chokas touching not complaints

Stonington — When a student reported to school officials in January that then-teacher Tim Chokas had inappropriately touched a girl in her classroom on numerous occasions — a story confirmed by her classmates — school officials say they did not consider it a complaint.

Even so, school administrators reported it as the possible abuse of a minor to the state Department of Children and Families, and it led to Chokas’ resignation.

When a group of girls say they complained to high school Principal Mark Friese that Chokas was touching them and other girls and making inappropriate comments in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years, Friese and Superintendent of Schools Van Riley said they did not consider those reports complaints, even though they ordered Chokas to come up with a plan to stop the behavior.

In 2013, when the two school officials received a complaint that Chokas was patting girl soccer players on the buttocks, they said they did not consider that a complaint, even though Chokas was ordered to come up with a strategy to avoid contact with the girls.

And in 2013, when retired Groton City police Detective Dave Thomas told Riley and Friese in person and by email that a girl had disclosed to him that Chokas had touched her bare stomach in his classroom photography darkroom, they said they did not consider that a complaint.

Instead, Friese and Riley testified under oath at a state Freedom of Information hearing on Nov. 22 that they categorized these complaints as “reports,” “interactions with people” and “concerns” expressed by students and others.

Friese also testified he never received a “complaint” about Chokas’ inappropriately touching female students or making inappropriate comments to them. Asked the same question, Riley said there was “no written record” of any complaints except for the email from Thomas about the girl Chokas allegedly touched in the darkroom.

Their categorizations meant that these complaints were not placed in Chokas’ personnel file and not released to The Day when it filed Freedom of Information requests for all complaints and disciplinary actions in Chokas’ personnel file on two occasions earlier this year.

Their testimony came a few minutes after former Stonington High School student Olivia Bayer, who complained Chokas repeatedly touched her in the classroom and at golf practice, testified at the same Nov. 22 FOI hearing that she was indeed filing a complaint about Chokas’ misconduct when she reported it to Friese in 2017.

Numerous girls have told The Day they were repeatedly touched by Chokas and saw him touching others dating back to 2004. The complaints include that Chokas allegedly placed his legs on girls’ laps, touched their backs, thighs and stomachs, patted their buttocks, massaged their shoulders, leaned up against them and tickled them. They also allege he asked about their boyfriends, invited them to have breakfast in his classroom, struck girls in the buttocks with a cane he was using and asked them to call him “Uncle Chokas.” The alleged touching took place in his classroom and an adjacent photo darkroom and during golf and soccer practice.

After the January 2019 student complaint, Chokas was allowed to resign with his full salary of $81,396 and benefits through the end of the school year. The school system also agreed not to fire him or disclose any information concerning his employment to anyone, except as required by law.

Complaints were considered 'concerns'

At the Nov. 22 hearing, Chokas and Friese struggled to explain the difference between a complaint and a “concern” or the process they use to decide the distinction.

“A complaint to me would be something that we have investigated and it is of a serious nature and we would have some follow-up consequences perhaps,” Riley testified. “A lot of, we go back and forth in here about concerns and complaints. The other type of complaint, if I had a written complaint from somebody, I’d certainly consider that a formal kind of complaint.”

Asked if a report or concern has to be investigated to be a complaint, Riley said a complaint “could stand on it own.”

Asked if a complaint has to be in writing, Riley said “it could be in writing or it could be as the result of an investigation where there were some serious repercussions to something.”

Asked if a complaint could be verbal, he answered, "it could be."

At one point during questioning by The Day, Riley said the report from the girl who said Chokas touched her classmate in January could be a complaint about a teacher’s behavior. When asked why it was not released then to The Day, Riley recharacterized it, saying, it was “a report from Mr. Friese to me.”

Asked if the “concerns” expressed about Chokas in 2015-16 and 2016-17 and referenced by Friese in a 2017 memo were complaints, Riley answered “you have to ask him.”

Both Friese and Riley said they had never received formal written complaints about Chokas but could not say if they had informed those complaining they had to file in writing. Bayer testified she was never told she had to file a formal written complaint when she met with Friese and Director of Guidance Margo Crowley.

It is unknown if the school system has a written policy or procedure for handling complaints against teachers.

On Nov. 24, The Day filed a Freedom of Information request with Board of Education Chairwoman Alexa Garvey seeking “any written policy, procedure, instructions, guidelines or action plan established by the Stonington school district to govern, oversee, receive, process and or report complaints or concerns of misconduct against teachers and other school district employees.”

As of Saturday, the school system had not provided the policy to The Day.

No records of complaints, discipline

Friese, Riley and Board of Education attorney Kyle McClain also maintained during the Nov. 22 hearing that there were no complaints or disciplinary records in Chokas’ personnel file so there was nothing to release to The Day. They said this despite four other school system documents that indicate the school system received complaints that Chokas was touching girls in 2013, 2015-16, 2016-17 and January 2019.

Friese later testified, though, that he received a written letter in the 2015-17 period expressing concerns about Chokas’ behavior.

They also testified that with the exception of the Jan. 9, 2019, incident, they had not reported any other allegations about Chokas to DCF or police. State law requires school employees to do so if they reasonably suspect a child is being abused. Until the Nov. 22 FOI hearing, Riley had refused to say whether complaints about Chokas inappropriately touching girls were ever reported, only saying they were handled appropriately.

Friese and Riley also testified that placing Chokas on administrative leave and ordering him on two occasions to come up with plans to avoid touching girls were not considered discipline.

Riley and McClain explained that paid administrative leave is not considered discipline under labor law and is used as school officials investigate an issue. Riley testified that ordering Chokas to come up with a plan to avoid touching girls inappropriately “was a direction, it wasn’t a form of discipline.”

He said it is common to have teachers come up with plans that offer them direction on issues such as instructional strategies and classroom discipline.

Friese: 'It’s semantics'

During questioning by McClain at the hearing, Friese was asked if the memo he wrote after the female student complained about Chokas’ behavior in January was a complaint he filed with the school district.

“Yes,” Friese said before explaining, “this is the results of my investigation” and not a complaint.

“It discusses concerns expressed by a student,” he said.

Friese said he investigated based on previous patterns about Chokas from 2017 and that Chokas was removed from the school that afternoon before it could reach the point of discussing a formal complaint.

Friese said the question of whether the report of Chokas touching students was a complaint is “semantics.”

“We acted on it. He was out of the building in an hour,” he said.

Friese also testified that the reports in 2015-16 and 2016-17 came from a student and a staff member in a phone call and a letter and were anonymous. He again said they were not complaints about Chokas but “concerns about his behavior.”

Asked to describe the difference between a concern and complaint, Friese testified, “Based on the investigation, as it says there, there was no finding of anything inappropriate, so it was a concern. There was nothing there.”

Asked if he considered Bayer’s report to him that Chokas had repeatedly touched her and other students inappropriately a complaint about his behavior, Friese replied, “based on the investigation, we went this direction with it (sic). Based on all of the different (sic), the investigation we had on that.”

Asked again if he considered it a complaint, Friese said, “No. She was very concerned, exactly how she said. So we put things in place to make sure it never happens again.”

While ruling on an objection by McClain, FOI hearing officer Matthew Reed also raised a question about how the school system determines if something is a complaint.

“Why does the outcome of the investigation determine whether it’s a complaint, an inquiry or a concern?” he asked.

The FOI appeal

During the hearing, McClain introduced a slightly less redacted portion of the January 2019 memo that shows other students in the class that day called Chokas’ actions toward the girl “creepy, flirtatious and inappropriate touching and attention.” Another female student said Chokas had similar flirtations toward her but she gave him “attitude and he backed off.”

When one boy was asked “would you be concerned if your daughter was in the class, he said yes.” Friese however, never named Chokas in the redacted memo, only referring to him as TC.

The Nov. 22 testimony took place during The Day’s appeal of the school system’s redacting a lengthy section of the January 2019 memo, as well as the newspaper’s allegation that the school system violated FOI law by failing to release complaints and disciplinary actions involving Chokas.

Reed is expected to issue a proposed decision on The Day’s appeal early next year. The full commission then will review his recommendation and make a ruling.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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