Stonington school officials failed to follow policy in Chokas matter

Stonington — A review of school district policies and procedures shows administrators repeatedly failed to follow their own requirements when handling the numerous sexual harassment complaints made by female students against former high school teacher and coach Timothy Chokas.

The Day's review shows Superintendent of Schools Van Riley and high school Principal Mark Friese violated the policies in a number of ways, such as failing to inform students they could file written complaints, not contacting their parents, failing to complete a written investigation and not informing students of the results of those investigations.

The Day’s review began after the school system recently released 529 pages of documents in response to the newspaper's Freedom of Information request for any policies, procedures and guidelines the district uses to handle complaints against employees.

Most of the released documents were not approved school board policies but included items such as student, employee, athlete and coaches’ handbooks, health curricula, lesson plans, training programs, detailed guidelines from the New Hampshire Department of Education for investigating sexual harassment and information on issues such as bullying and dating violence.

The school system has refused to say which of the documents it used to evaluate the complaints made about Chokas beginning in 2013.

“This is a personnel issue and we are not able to respond to your questions,” Riley said by email.

The policies

Included in the released documents are two policies that specifically deal with sexual harassment.

Policy 5145.5, entitled “Students Sexual Harassment,” which was approved in 1998 and again in 2009, stipulates a procedure for complaints of sexual harassment involving students.

The policy states that victims of sexual harassment should report the incidents promptly to their principal, superintendent and director of special services. It states the complaints will be investigated promptly and corrective action taken when allegations are verified.

The procedure also states the student should immediately inform the harasser that the conduct is unwelcome, unprofessional or highly inappropriate and then make a written complaint to school personnel or the principal. The student then will be given a copy of the policy and made aware of his or her rights.

If the child is a minor, which most students at the school are, their parents or guardians must be notified. In addition, the policy states that any student, parent or guardian who makes an oral complaint will be provided a copy of the policy and instructed to make a written complaint.

Olivia Bayer and Grace Williams, two of the four girls who complained verbally to Friese and Director of Guidance Margo Crowley in 2017 that Chokas was touching them inappropriately in class and at golf practice, say they were never offered the opportunity to file a written complaint. Bayer, who met with Friese on behalf of the girls, says she was never informed of the outcome of any investigation and both Bayer and Williams' mothers have said school officials never contacted them.

Documents released by the school system in response to FOI requests by The Day show complaints were made to school officials about Chokas in 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2019. Four current school board members have said their children had told them about Chokas touching female students.

If the complaints were put in writing, per the requirement of the policy, they would have been placed in Chokas’ personnel file. But Riley said there were no complaints in Chokas’ personnel file when The Day requested them on two occasions last year.

Even the Jan. 9, 2019, complaint that led to Chokas’ resignation a few days later is not in the file. In that complaint a female student reported that on numerous occasions Chokas touched another female student and made comments that made her feel uncomfortable, allegations that Friese said in a memo were corroborated by all but one other student in the classroom at the time. That complaint also led to the school making its only report about Chokas to the state Department of Children and Families, but the agency declined to investigate.

A complaint about Chokas made by school board member Candace Anderson in 2016 based on comments she heard about Chokas from her daughter and her friends was not put in writing nor placed in Chokas’ personnel file.

Riley and Friese testified under oath, at a Freedom of Information Commission hearing in December, that no complaints were ever made about Chokas despite statements from students saying they had made complaints and numerous documents and emails to and/or from school administrators that reference complaints against the teacher.

Instead, Riley and Friese categorized the complaints as “reports,” “concerns” and “interactions with people.” As such, they did not put them in Chokas’ personnel file nor release them to The Day.

The policies that establish a process for handling sexual harassment refer to “complaints” filed by students and make no mention of an option to categorize them as “reports,” “concerns” or “interactions with people.”

The policy requires Friese or his designee to commence an effective, thorough, objective and complete investigation. The investigator must consult with all individuals reasonably believed to have relevant information, including the student and the alleged harasser, any witnesses to the conduct, "and victims of similar conduct that the investigator reasonably believes may exist."

The investigator must make a written report within 10 school days summarizing the results of the investigation and proposed disposition of the matter and provide it to the complainant, alleged harasser and others who are involved. The girls involved in the 2017 complaints say they never received such a report. Bayer has said Friese told her school officials would take care of the issue.

In a July 1, 2019, email to school board members, Riley wrote that he believed Friese and Assistant Principal Neal Curland did "a proper and full investigation" of the "allegations" made by the girl that board member Anderson knew. But there is no record of that complaint in Chokas' personnel file. 

Riley did not respond to an email Friday asking if any written investigations of the complaints against Chokas exist in school system records. 

Complaint procedure

A 2003 policy entitled “Personnel-Certified/Non Certified Harassment Complaint Procedure,” states a student or employee has the option of pursuing either an informal complaint procedure designed to educate the harasser and eliminate the problem, or enter a formal complaint procedure. In addition, a student or employee who makes an informal complaint will be provided a copy of the regulations and will be encouraged to pursue a formal complaint, should the informal investigation and intervention be unsuccessful in eliminating the objectionable behavior.

The formal complaint procedure again involves submitting a written complaint. In addition, if the child is a minor, the school employee who receives the report should consider whether a child abuse report should be filed.

Much like the student policy, the personnel policy states that upon receiving a formal complaint, the principal and director of special services must “commence an effective, thorough, objective and complete investigation of the complaint,” and the investigator should consult with all individuals believed to have relevant information, including the person filing the complaint, the alleged harasser, witnesses and victims of similar conduct.

The investigator also must make a written report summarizing the results of the investigation and proposed disposition of the complaint and proposed disposition of the matter and make copies available to the complainant, alleged harasser and others directly concerned.

The policy also states that "actions taken in response to situations of harassment may include reprimand, reassignment, transfer, suspension, expulsion, disciplinary action or discharge from employment."

School officials have said no such disciplinary action took place in the case of Chokas, who was allowed to resign in January 2019 with his full salary of $81,396 and benefits through the end of the school year. The school system also agreed not to fire Chokas or disclose any information concerning his employment to anyone, except as required by law.

With the partial exception of the January 2019 complaint that led to Chokas’ resignation, there is no documentation in the materials released to The Day that indicates such an investigation took place with the other complaints dating back to 2013. If Chokas had been disciplined, which school officials say never happened, references to written complaints and investigations likely would have been referred to in any letter of discipline.

But documents show that on at least two occasions, in 2013 and 2017, Chokas was instructed to come up with plans to avoid touching female soccer players and students after school officials received complaints about his behavior.

Other policies state that Riley is to develop and implement procedures on reporting, investigating and remedying allegations of sexual harassment; that the school board prohibits "any sexual relationship, contact or sexually nuanced behavior or communication" between a staff member and a student; and reiterate the provisions of the state's Mandatory Reporter Law.

After the Day published an article about the allegations against Chokas and how they were handled last June, the state Office of the Child Advocate began a review of the school system’s policies and procedures regarding sexual harassment and handling such complaints. That review is ongoing, with a report expected later this month or in February.

The released documents also show that since Chokas' resignation, the school system has undertaken steps to address the issue of sexual harassment. All staff members had to undergo training last fall and school officials are working to update the policy involving students, but that remains in draft form. The district also has established an incident form for students to report bullying and harassment and distributed information about sexual harassment, what to do about it and where to get help.

j.wojtas@theday.com

What's next

Jan. 23: The school board will discuss and possibly approve the hiring of an attorney to conduct an independent investigation of how school officials handled the allegations against former teacher and coach Timothy Chokas, after resisting calls for one since last summer.

Jan. 27: A public workshop at 7 p.m. at the former Pawcatuck Middle School to begin discussing issues, such as how to improve the complaint reporting process and the interview process for those filing a complaint, how to make students making complaints feel comfortable, how to better involve parents in the process and forming community partnerships to address the issue.

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