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Stonington school board to interview 3 firms to conduct Chokas investigation

Stonington — The Board of Education agreed Thursday night to interview three firms to oversee the investigation of how school officials handled allegations against former teacher Timothy Chokas.

In addition, the board came up with an outline of the scope of the investigations for the firm it will hire.

The firms are Joseph A. DeLuca Advisory and Consulting Services of New York City, Paula Anthony of Berchem Moses of Milford and Christine Chinni of Chinni & Meuser of Avon. The board is expected to conduct interviews with them over the next 10 days and select one.

“There’s a lot riding on this investigation,” board member Jack Morehouse told his fellow members Thursday night. “If we don’t talk to everyone involved, it won’t have a sense of closure.”

Board member Farouk Rajab added that the board had “a moral obligation” to protect children and do what’s right for them. “We need to find the truth,” he said.

The board's direction to the firms will be to determine exactly what happened; were policies, procedures and law in place and were they followed; was there a communications breakdown and why did it happen; and are there climate issues at the high school.

“The lack of trust felt at the high school now is huge,” board member Heidi Simmons said.

Board Chairwoman Alexa Garvey said school administrators have pledged “complete cooperation” with the investigation.

But she also said participation is voluntary. It is unknown if teachers and other staff members will cooperate.

Former board member Faith Leitner told the board that some staff members may be worried their jobs may be in jeopardy if they talk to investigators. “You want staff to feel safe that they can talk,” she said.

Board members agreed that the course of the investigation may be determined by what the investigative firm finds as it begins talking to students and others involved in the controversy.

Board members also had questions about the eventual cost of the probe and plan to question the firms about that. “We’re spending the taxpayers' money here, we want a clear result,” Morehouse said.

Board members have said it is important to have a woman involved in the investigation due to the sensitive nature of the sexual harassment allegations, while Morehouse said he wants an investigator with a law enforcement background, such as the Joseph DeLuca firm, which employs a female former FBI agent.

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 the girls 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 high school Principal Mark Friese testified under oath that the 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, were not considered complaints. Instead, Riley and Friese 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. The school system has now updated those policies and procedures.

In January 2019 a female student complained to staff member that Chokas was touching a female classmate and making inappropriate comments to her. 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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