Stonington officials outline policy updates in wake of Chokas controversy

Stonington — The school system’s director of special services on Monday night outlined the extensive steps the district has taken over the past year to review and update its sexual harassment policies and procedures in light of the controversy surrounding the handling of complaints against former high school teacher Timothy Chokas.

In addition to hearing from Allison Van Etten, who also serves as the district’s Title IX coordinator, the Board of Education listened to a presentation from Assistant Superintendent Mary Anne Butler, who described updates to age-appropriate student health curriculum and other related programs to address issues such as sexual harassment, grooming and healthy relationships.

Also speaking at the board workshop was Katherine Verano, executive director of Safe Futures, a New London-based organization that assists victims of domestic violence and sexual assault and provides educational programs. The school system is partnering with Safe Futures to provide programs and assistance for students, staff and families.

The school board’s workshop Monday came as it waits for state Child Advocate Sarah Eagan to complete her review of the district's policies and procedures regarding sexual harassment. She said last week she hopes to have her report done by March. She began her review last June, after The Day published the first of a series of stories about the allegations against Chokas and how they were handled.

Van Etten told the school board that school officials are “anxiously awaiting” Eagan’s report so her recommendations can be added into the school system’s updated policies.

Last week, the school board voted to launch an independent investigation into how school officials handled the numerous complaints they received that Chokas inappropriately touched students dating back to 2013. The board will iron out details about the scope and procedure of such an investigation and begin the work of hiring an attorney to conduct the probe.

The numerous complaints against Chokas, who also served as the girls’ assistant golf and soccer coach, include that he allegedly placed his legs on girls’ laps, touched their backs and thighs, stroked their hair, massaged their shoulders, pushed up against them, tickled them and struck one girl in the buttocks with a cane he was using. They also allege he asked girls about their boyfriends and invited them to have breakfast with him in his classroom.

The alleged touching took place in his classroom, an adjacent photo darkroom and at golf and soccer practice sessions. Those who have spoken to The Day say the touching was pervasive.

Superintendent Van Riley and high school Principal Mark Friese testified under oath that they did not consider various reports about inappropriate touching and comments that students lodged against Chokas, referred to in various school documents and emails in 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2019 and from the girls themselves, as complaints. Instead, they considered them “reports,” “interactions with people” and “concerns” expressed by students and others. These categorizations meant that they were not placed in Chokas’ personnel file and not released to The Day when the newspaper requested them last year.

Chokas was never disciplined for his alleged actions, according to school officials. A review by The Day shows school officials failed to follow the district’s own sexual harassment policies in place at the time.

Training, outreach efforts expanded

On Monday, Van Etten reported that last October all school administrators underwent two days of training on Title IX, the federal law that oversees sexual discrimination for educational programs that receive federal assistance, and learned how to recognize sexual harassment and misconduct and conduct an investigation. They also underwent additional training to recognize staff-on-student harassment.

Administrators and school staff also took two hours of online sexual harassment training for managers provided by the town’s insurer. Administrators and teachers also completed their required training on the state’s mandatory reporter law for child abuse in 2018 and will complete updated training this fall. She said that staff also was made aware of a state Department of Children and Families employee assigned to the area that they can contact through the police department.

Van Etten said the school system is revising its regulations for investigating sexual harassment and has developed a checklist with specific steps to follow, such as the type of questions to ask students, dissemination of policies and procedures to those who file complaints, ways to document student complaints and providing a summary of an investigation to students and parents.

For staff, she said DCF Careline posters have been put up in the schools and staff will receive electronic notifications of sexual harassment policies.

She said students will be made aware of the policies through periodic electronic notifications, posters and handbooks. The school system’s anonymous incident reporting for bullying has been expanded to include issues such as sexual harassment. It is available through a link on each school's website.

She said she also met with the high school Administrative Student Advisory Panel to discuss why students do and do not report interactions with staff and classmates.

“We need to work on how to get our students to speak up,” she said.

She added the school system will work with Safe Futures on this issue and also will be implementing a Green Dot program used on college campuses that gives students ways to intervene and support fellow students in uncomfortable situations.

She said parents also will be notified of the policies and procedures and anonymous reporting methods.

Last week, school administrators met with Safe Futures staff members to discuss the current climate in the schools. Staff members also are being trained in grooming behavior of predators and how they profile potential victims.

Resident Noreen Kepple, one of just a few residents who attended Monday’s workshop and who last week told the board that students were let down by school officials who “watered down” the complaints by referring to them as “concerns” or “interactions,” said Monday she applauded the board for putting together the workshop.

“The question is how do we get the community involved?” she said.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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