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Stonington school board member hopes Chokas probe clears district officials of wrongdoing

Stonington — School board member Candace Anderson said Wednesday that she supports an independent investigation into how school officials handled the complaints against former high school teacher Timothy Chokas, and hopes the probe will clear the names of high school administrators who she believes did nothing wrong.

Anderson had been among the four board members blocking the investigation because they said they first wanted to receive the results of state Child Advocate Sarah Eagan’s review of the school system’s policies and procedures regarding sexual harassment.

But last Thursday, with Eagan’s report not expected until March, the board voted 6-0 to proceed with the investigation.

Anderson, however, was not at that meeting, because she has been dealing with a recently diagnosed health issue. The Day reached out to her this week to determine if she, too, now supports the investigation that board member Alisa Morrison has been calling for since July 2019.

In an email, Anderson wrote that when Alexandra Kapell, who is the president of the high school Student Council and serves as the student representative to the school board, urged the board on Jan. 9 to begin an investigation because she said “there’s a lot to be uncovered,” Anderson said she “felt compelled to do the second independent investigation.”

“The results will be the results, but it is my hope that this will help to clear the names of high school administrators, as I believe from private discussions with them (which all board members were invited to have on a one-one basis), there was no wrongdoing on their part. People can only act on the facts they actually have. Teachers cannot be fired for being weird or creepy.”

Anderson added, Kapell's "comment tipped the scale for me. The next day I met briefly with (high school Principal Mark) Mr. Friese to discuss a concern about one of my kids. Before I left he urged me to push for the second investigation.”

“It is the only way to clarify what happened given the toll this has taken on students and the community. If (the Office of the Child Advocate) only comes back with recommendations it will not be enough to satisfy the need people have to want to share their experience through a focused, professional, confidential and independent investigation,” she said.

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, occurred daily and dates back to 2004.

Superintendent Van Riley and Friese testified under oath that they did not consider various reports about inappropriate touching and comments lodged against Chokas by students, 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 the complaints were not placed in Chokas’ personnel file and not released to The Day when the newspaper requested them last year.

In addition, 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. Earlier this week, school officials outlined the steps they have taken to improve the system policies and procedures regarding sexual harassment.

In January 2019 a female student complained to staff member Kate Milde, who worked in the career center, that Chokas was touching a female classmate and making inappropriate comments to her. Milde said she brought the girl to Assistant Principal Neal Curland.

That incident led to Chokas being 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 Chokas or disclose any information concerning his employment to anyone, except as required by law.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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