Chokas legal fees near $100,000 for Stonington schools

Stonington — The school system spent almost $100,000 through Dec. 31 on legal fees associated with the controversy surrounding former high school teacher Timothy Chokas.

The school system released the legal bills after The Day filed a Freedom of Information request for them.

The $96,776 total does not include bills incurred during January and February and the cost of an upcoming independent investigation into how school officials handled the complaints against Chokas.  The teacher was accused by numerous female students of touching them inappropriately and making unwanted comments for years before resigning after a new student complaint in January 2019.

The bills mostly involved legal assistance for Chokas' separation agreement, a subsequent review of school system policies and procedures regarding sexual harassment by the state Office of the Child Advocate and reviewing, responding to and opposing Freedom of Information requests from The Day.

The school system redacted the reasons for 128 of the 269 separate charges, so it is unknown what the reason for those bills were.

Kyle McClain, one of the attorneys assisting the school system with the Chokas matters, wrote in an email accompanying the release of the bills that certain information had been redacted due to exemption disclosures under state law that allow for “records of strategy or negotiations with respect to collective bargaining” and “records of communications privileged by the attorney-client relationship.”

The bills show that the school system has employed two legal firms for assistance with Chokas matters. Shipman & Goodwin of Hartford charged the school system approximately $350 to more than $500 an hour while Zangari, Cuthbertson, Duhl & Grello of New Haven has charged between $195 and $215 a hour.

The 2018-19 school budget, which ended June 30, 2019 about five months after Chokas resigned, allocated $50,000 for legal fees and $47,087 was spent, according to figures provided by school system finance director Gary Shettle. The current budget, which runs from July 1, 2019, to June 30, 2020, allocates $65,000 for legal fees with $57,982 spent so far and four months to go in the fiscal year.

At a school board meeting last week, where members discussed the parameters of the upcoming independent investigation and selected three firms to interview, board members indicated they may have to ask the Board of Finance for an additional appropriation to cover that cost, which is not yet known. 

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 high school principal Mark 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. The school system has now updated those policies and procedures.

In January 2019 a female student complained to a 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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