Stonington school board won't investigate handling of Chokas allegations
Stonington — The Board of Education decided Thursday night not to proceed with an independent investigation into how school officials handled complaints that former high school teacher Timothy Chokas inappropriately touched numerous female students dating back to at least 2013.
While the board didn't vote, a majority of members made it clear that they preferred to wait until state Child Advocate Sarah Eagan completes her review of the school system’s policies and procedures regarding the handling of the Chokas matter. School officials say that report is not expected until late January or February. Meanwhile, they plan to hold a future workshop to discuss the issue.
Board members Alisa Morrison, Jack Morehouse and Heidi Simmons have supported a separate investigation that would interview students, teachers, parents and others to determine if they filed complaints and how they were handled, something Eagan is not doing.
Morehouse said Thursday night one of his daughters had a friend impacted by Chokas’ action, adding that he does not know how many other such girls are out there.
“We need to know what happened,” he said. “We owe it to these kids who have had to sit in his classroom and feel uncomfortable, at the very least.”
Four other board members have now said their children or friends had also witnessed alleged inappropriate touching and comments by Chokas.
One of them, Heidi Simmons, who works with domestic violence victims at Safe Futures in New London, said she hopes the board “will be able to address the trauma of these victims.”
“We need to turn over every stone until we can regain the trust from the community and the community can feel there is closure,” she said.
She added, “We have a very good school system but we want to make this a great school system. That can’t happen until we find closure to this issue.”
Morrison, who has called for an independent investigation since The Day reported in June the circumstances surrounding Chokas’ January resignation, had requested the board on Thursday begin discussing the logistics of such a probe, in case it wanted to proceed with one. That discussion never occurred.
Board member Candace Anderson, who is opposed to an independent school board investigation, “asked the adults in the room to act like adults and wait for the (child advocate) report.”
Her comments came after she revealed Thursday night that in March 2016 she had brought concerns about Chokas’ actions from four students, including her daughter, to high school administrators and asked that he be "monitored." She said she learned through an FOI request that her words had been heeded and had become part of the record involving Chokas. Anderson's report was not released to The Day when it twice filed FOI requests this year for all complaints and disciplinary action against Chokas.
Anderson added that staff, coaches and others both in and out of the building “should have never let this happen.” But, she said, the problems persisted because Chokas was an established member of the school community.
Board chairwoman Alexa Garvey said the school board’s attorney has told her that the child advocate’s review is an outside independent investigation.
“I don’t believe we should start an independent investigation when we have one going on,” she said.
When asked by Morehouse if Eagan is interviewing teachers and past students who complained about Chokas, Garvey said she did not know. Parent Jennifer Manfredi told the board the answer is no because her daughter was among a group of girls who complained about Chokas in 2017 and she has not been contacted.
Garvey said that she was interviewed last Friday by Eagan along with Superintendent of Schools Van Riley, High School Principal Mark Friese, Director of Guidance Margo Crowley, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Mary Anne Butler, high school Assistant Principal Neal Curland and Director of Special Services Allison Van Etten.
She did not name any teachers or coaches. School system documents, e-mails and student reports show complaints were also made about Chokas touching girls while coaching soccer and golf. In 2013 and 2017, he was instructed to come up with plans to avoid touching girls.
During the public comment section of Thursday’s meeting, former school board member Faith Leitner urged the board to proceed with its own investigation.
“We cannot not talk about this anymore,” she said, adding it’s been almost a year since Chokas resigned. She pointed out an investigation would be expensive.
“But what is the price of student safety at Stonington High School?” she asked.
“We need to do everything possible to get to the bottom of it. These girls deserve this.”
Riley and Garvey said steps are being taken to improve sexual harassment training for staff and implementing procedures for handling student complaints such as having them put it in writing. Board members said they are also looking forward to receiving Eagan’s recommendations.
On Nov. 24, The Day filed a Freedom of Information request with the school board for any policies or procedures for handling complaints that were in place during Chokas’ tenure at the school. As of Thursday night school officials had not provided those documents or said if any existed.
Riley also responded to three questions Morehouse asked at the beginning of November. Riley said the school system received complaints about Chokas in April 2017 and January 2019. But while testifying under oath at a Nov. 22 state Freedom of Information Commission hearing, Friese said he never received a complaint about Chokas and Riley said it had never received a written complaint.
During that hearing, Friese and Riley testified they did not consider various complaints about inappropriate touching and comments lodged against Chokas, referred to in various school documents and e-mails in 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2019 as complaints. Instead, they considered them “reports,” “interactions with people” and “concerns” expressed by students and others.
Their categorizations meant that these complaints were not placed in Chokas’ personnel file and not released to The Day.
Numerous girls have told The Day they were repeatedly touched by Chokas and saw him touching others dating to 2004. After a January 2019 incident in which a student reported to a police officer in the building that Chokas was touching a female classmate and making inappropriate comments, 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.
Stories that may interest you
The Friendship School in Waterford was closed to in-person classes on Thursday due to a person testing positive for COVID-19.
Elizabeth Millhouse says she’s grateful to have Otis Library open again, if only by apointment, because her 7-year-old daughter Clare reads books so fast she can’t keep up with the demand.
On July 4, 1901, thousands gathered in the Norwichtown Burial Ground for the dedication of a monument to 20 French soldiers who had given their lives for American liberty.
Despite spending most of my adult life in other communities, Norwich, where I was born and raised, will always hold a special place in my heart.