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Stonington school board rep says system has 'massive problem' with sexual harassment, assault

Stonington — In a letter to the Board of Education on Friday, the board's student representative, high school senior Alexandra Kapell, told members that "Stonington High School has a massive problem with sexual assault and harassment."

"The culture here emboldens predators to act and often discourages young girls who report. To my knowledge, there are little to no resources readily available to students who may be victims of assault despite students asking the administration to provide said resources," said Kapell, who is also the student government president.

In February, it was Kapell who urged a divided school board to undertake an independent investigation into how school officials handled years of complaints that former teacher and coach Timothy Chokas had sexually harassed them with repeated unwanted touching and inappropriate comments. One month later, the board voted to hire an attorney to conduct the investigation, which is ongoing.

At the end of Thursday night's school board meeting, Kapell told board members she would be sending them a letter on Friday. She told them the high school "perpetuates a culture" that allows for assault and harassment to happen and is why students do not feel comfortable reporting incidents.

She urged the board to not gloss over her letter because she said assault and harassment are a "huge issue in the school district." She said she would also be sending her letter to Christine Chinni, the attorney conducting the Chokas investigation.

Board member Heidi Simmons told Kapell her perspective is an important one for the board to consider.

"We will be doing this for you, Ally, I promise you," Simmons told Kapell.

In her letter, Kapell wrote, "The manner in which I have seen Stonington High School handle sexual assault and harassment allegations, both in regard to Timothy Chokas and beyond, is quite frankly appalling. It would be irresponsible to graduate without making this clear; throughout my time at Stonington our school's problem with harassment and assault has gotten worse and our culture and responses must change."

She wrote that earlier this year when she was asked to participate in a small group that worked with the school administration to uncover problems relating to Chokas, one of the recurring questions was: "Why do students feel uncomfortable coming forward with their complaints?"

"For a student, this answer is obvious. There is immense distrust in the administration," Kapell wrote.

Superintendent Van Riley and 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, were not considered complaints but "reports" and "concerns." This meant complaints were not placed in Chokas' personnel file and he was never disciplined.

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 him or disclose any information concerning his employment to anyone, except as required by law.

Kapell pointed out that at the beginning of each school year, there is an assembly in which a police officer talks to the student body about child pornography. She said that each year, the officer "makes comments that imply victim blaming."

She said the commentary at the assemblies made hundreds of young people feel uncomfortable because they have the message that if a girl does not send a photo of herself to a male student, there will be no trouble.

"However, if she does then she will no longer be seen as a 'sweet little girl' and she is equally to blame as a boy who may then distribute that photo. This mindset and these repetitive assemblies deeply damage young girls' trust in our school and deter them from coming forward," Kapell wrote.

She said that when she and her friends complained to the high school guidance department, they were told "that this is just how it is and that the officer speaking was not wrong."

"Our school administration was perpetuating a culture that blames girls for harassment and assault while giving boys a free pass," she wrote.

Stonington police Capt. Todd Olson said Friday that all of the programs police use in the school are vetted by school officials and in this case the curriculum was provided by the state's supervisory juvenile prosecutor.

Olson said Youth Officer Tom Paige has made the presentation for five years and never received a complaint. Olson said that if the department had received a complaint, it would have certainly reviewed the curriculum to ensure it was not offending students.

Kapell also discussed how, on two occasions during her time at the school, male students distributed photos of nude female students with no repercussions. Distributing such photos of minors is considered child pornography under the law. She said a third student, who was charged by police after distributing doctored photos he downloaded off the internet superimposed with the faces of female classmates, was allowed to return to school and participate in activities.

She said the school's actions has taught boys in the school, "that they were free to act this way with no repercussions, arguably the most dangerous consequence."

She added that one of the male students and another accused of assault recently received awards from the school. She said it was explained to her "that coaches and teachers nominate students and meant no harm, perhaps simply forgetting about that student's past. Ultimately, the issue is that it is possible for the adults we trust to forget what these students have done while the young women affected will never have this luxury."

Kapell suggested that publishing and advertising resources available for students would be the first step in creating a school environment where every student has a safe space to report something that happened to them, not only those who already have close relationships with administration or teachers.

"As a community, and as a school, we have a responsibility to support survivors of harassment and assault. We must actively work to cultivate an environment where this is possible," she wrote.

"It cannot go without saying that Stonington High School has strong leaders and good individuals who may work to create safe spaces for students of their own. However, this must be the overwhelming truth for everywhere in Stonington High, not just certain teachers' classrooms," she concluded.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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