Stonington school board picks firm to conduct Chokas investigation

Stonington — The Board of Education on Wednesday night tentatively selected an Avon attorney to conduct an independent investigation into how school officials handled the years of sexual harassment allegations made against former Stonington High School teacher and coach Timothy Chokas.

The board made the selection to engage Christine Chinni of Chinni & Meuser after interviewing her and two other firms — Joseph A. DeLuca Advisory and Consulting Services of New York City and Paula Anthony of Berchem Moses of Milford.

The board is slated to formally vote on a letter of engagement with Chinni at its March 12 meeting.

While Chinni will charge the board $260 an hour for her work, the overall cost of the investigation is unknown and will depend on the scope of her work. As for the time to complete the investigation, Chinni said that if she deals with the complaints against Chokas going back to 2013, her work would take about two months. Going back to 2004, when Chokas began working in the school, as some school board members want, would take longer.

Board member Jack Morehouse said he wants to look back that far to determine the scope of the problem, while member Heidi Simmons said she wants to make sure every girl affected is heard and gets any needed assistance.

Board Chairwoman Alexa Garvey said that if the cost is in the $20,000 range, school officials would have to find the money in the current budget.

The school district nearly has exhausted the $65,000 it set aside for legal fees in the 2019-20 budget, which does not end until June 30. Garvey said she does not intend to ask for an additional appropriation from the Board of Finance, adding that taxpayers should not be asked to fund the investigation.

Board members interviewed the three firms for 30 minutes each and then asked questions. All three presented differing approaches to the investigation.

Chinni, an educational lawyer who works with school boards, said she has done many investigations involving Title IX violations and sexual harassment over the last 30 years.

She told the board she would review records and personnel files as well as information shared through Freedom of Information requests and with Child Advocate Sarah Eagan to determine whom she needs to interview. “Usually one victim leads to others,” she said.

She said she would write to all complainants and urged the board to put an announcement of the investigation on its website, issue a news release about it and inform school staff.

While school board members told Chinni they were under the impression that teachers and staff members could choose not to participate in any interviews, Chinni stressed the school board has the authority to direct its employees to speak with an investigator.

“If a kid went to a teacher, I want to talk to that person,” she said, referring to the teacher.

“You want to get to the bottom of what happened,” she said, adding that the board also wants to determine if school staff did what its policies told them to do and what the board would expect them to do when receiving complaints about a teacher. She said she also understands the school board wants to determine if there is a “problematic climate” at the school.

Chinni said she will do all the interviews herself and will give the board periodic updates on her progress leading up to submitting a final written report of her conclusions.

She said hiring a firm that would use former law enforcement professionals to investigate and conduct interviews would be a detriment in this case, because of the delicate nature of the allegations. She said she is trying to make people comfortable with talking to her as she conducts her fact-finding. She said she also would inform staff that retaliation against them for speaking to her is forbidden and they can alert her if they are having a problem.

The numerous complaints against Chokas involve alleged inappropriate touching of and making inappropriate comments to female students. Those who have spoken to The Day say the touching was pervasive, occurred daily and dates back to 2004.

But Superintendent Van Riley and high school Principal Mark Friese testified under oath that the various reports lodged against Chokas by students, referred to in 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.

Chinni told the board Wednesday that she does not see any relevant distinction between a complaint and a concern.

In addition, Chokas was never disciplined for his alleged actions, according to school officials.

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 district also agreed not to fire Chokas or disclose any information concerning his employment to anyone, except as required by law.

Meanwhile, the district is awaiting the results of the state child advocate's review of the school system’s policies and procedures regarding sexual harassment in the wake of the Chokas controversy.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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