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Two Stonington school board members resign amid controversy, COVID-19

Stonington — Chairwoman Alexa Garvey and member Candace Anderson resigned from the Board of Education on Wednesday morning.

Anderson cited her cancer treatments and the "divisive and toxic nature of the board" for stepping down while Garvey said she no longer has "the time to meet the commitment and the demands of being a member of this board."

Their resignations come as the board awaits the results of an independent investigation later this month into how Superintendent of Schools Van Riley and other school officials handled the sexual harassment complaints against former high school teacher Timothy Chokas. The board also is waiting for a review by the state Office of the Child Advocate into whether the school system followed its policies and procedures when it received complaints.

The resignations also come as the school board begins its annual review of Riley, which some board members want to conduct in public instead of behind closed doors, as they traditionally do.

In addition, the resignations come amid the coronavirus pandemic as the school system begins creating a plan on how to reopen schools to students in late August, a plan the board will have to review and approve next month.

The school board is scheduled to meet virtually at 7 p.m. Thursday, when it is scheduled to elect a temporary chairman and receive an update on the independent investigation.

When resignations occur, the remaining school board members appoint replacements. Anderson is a Democrat and Garvey, a Republican.

Anderson has been a strong supporter of Riley and in January said she hoped the independent investigation would clear the names of high school administrators, who she said she believes did nothing wrong. Emails show Anderson filed her own concerns about Chokas with school officials.

Both she and Garvey, along with board members Craig Esposito and Farouk Rajab, had opposed beginning an independent investigation of Chokas, while board members Alisa Morrison, Jack Morehouse and Heidi Simmons, along with some residents, had called for one.

The board eventually approved the hiring of attorney Christine Chinni to conduct the probe in March, after residents and the school board's student representative, high school senior Alexandra Kapell, urged them to do so. Last month, Kapell, sent a letter to the school board saying that "Stonington High School has a massive problem with sexual assault and harassment."

With the two resignations, three of the remaining five members of the board have been publicly critical of how Riley, high school Principal Mark Friese and other school employees have handled the controversy. Over the past year some residents have called on the school board to fire or suspend Riley, Friese and other school employees. Some had called on Garvey to resign.

In her resignation letter, Anderson said her cancer treatments will continue through at least next February. She said that after not being able to attend board meetings for several months she began attending again last month, "only to find that the divisive forces and toxic nature of this particular board demand more of me than I am able to give."

"I am so proud of Stonington Schools and what the district has been able to accomplish under the leadership of Dr. Riley and his respective team. It has been an honor to serve on the Board and although I intended to complete my full term, I see no viable path to the finish line while maintaining my mental and physical health," she wrote.

"The optics of my resignation won't play well for me or the district in terms of the local media. However, I take comfort in knowing that in my nearly four years of service to the board I have stood on the side of justice and equity and championed the right of all children to reach their optimal educational potential. I have actively learned how to respect the role and responsibility of being a board member and worked to support the worthy goals of the district," she added.

She continued that the "board is at a critical juncture where it must choose between maintaining a hostile stance toward administration that will alienate future exemplary candidates from choosing a culture defined by mutual trust, support and continued growth, or realign itself in order to prevent the next generation of administrators who may take a more authoritarian approach, in turn reducing morale, transparency and the vibrant learning culture that defines Stonington."

In her resignation letter to her fellow board members, Garvey wrote, "it became clear over this past week that the intensity and time commitment that is required to be a member of the Board of Education in Stonington will not decrease but increase. I no longer have the time to meet the commitment and the demands of being a member of this board. My family, my health and work require and deserve more of my attention. It has been a year filled with many challenges, many of which remain ongoing. These will take a great deal of attention and active participation from all board members over the coming months."

Garvey, who could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday, went on to praise the work of school employees and listed the many achievements of the school system, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I have realized that there is never a good time to lose a board member and there is always a new challenge around the corner. A new member can add a new dynamic and assist in creating a more cohesive board," she wrote.

Former students have told The Day that Chokas repeatedly touched female students inappropriately and made inappropriate comments to them dating to 2004. Others have posted their complaints about Chokas and school officials on their Facebook and Instagram pages, the Stonington Community Forum Facebook page and in online comments on the numerous stories The Day has published about the controversy.

But Riley and Friese have 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. The Day revealed the allegations against Chokas and the settlement in June 2019.

j.wojtas@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects that when resignations occur, the remaining school board members appoint replacements.

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