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Superintendent Riley seeks delay in FOI decision on release of Chokas document

Stonington — The attorney for the Board of Education has filed a motion on behalf of Superintendent of Schools Van Riley to defer and reconsider a scheduled July 22 decision by the state Freedom of Information Commission on whether the school system must release an unredacted copy to The Day of a memo detailing a complaint about the behavior of former teacher Timothy Chokas that led to his resignation.

The request and 17-page brief by attorney Kyle McClain comes as FOI Hearing Officer Matthew Reed has recommended the commission uphold an appeal by The Day and order Riley and the school system to release the unredacted copy, something the district has refused to do. The redacted portion contains a statement by an unidentified female student who alleged that on numerous occasions, Chokas touched another female student and made comments that made her feel uncomfortable.

The request to delay action and send the issue back to Reed for reconsideration also comes as the Board of Education prepares to begin its annual evaluation of Riley.

Through Dec. 31, 2019, the school system and school board has spent almost $100,000 on legal fees related to the Chokas controversy and much of that money has been spent on fighting FOI requests from The Day.

Since then, the school board hired attorney Christine Chinni to investigate how school officials handled the complaints against Chokas at a cost of at least $20,000. Since Jan. 1, the school system has incurred other legal fees, such as McClain’s briefs for the upcoming hearing. This week, The Day filed a Freedom of Information request for updated bills since Jan. 1. If the commission grants Riley’s request, the school board will incur more legal fees on additional hearings and briefs.

The July 22 virtual hearing before the commission involves two FOI complaints by The Day about the actions of Riley and the school system.

The first involved a Jan. 9, 2019, memo from high school Principal Mark Friese to Riley entitled SUBJ: INVESTIGATION of STUDENT ALLEGATION OF INAPPROPRIATE CONTACT BY A TEACHER.”

The name of the student and Chokas do not appear in the memo, just their initials. At the hearing before Reed, The Day did not dispute the redaction of the student’s initials.

Riley and McClain have argued that state and federal laws allow the details of the student’s complaint in the memo to be redacted because the document is an education record of the student. They also argued the memo is a record of the state Department of Children and Families.

The Day argued that the student’s name is not in the memo and thus it is not a student record but instead a record of teacher misconduct, which must be released under state law. The Day also argued that the memo is not a DCF record because Riley testified at a preliminary hearing before Reed that DCF never investigated the complaint. Reed agreed with The Day’s position in his recommendation to the commission.

McClain has now asked the commission either to amend Reed’s recommendation or remand the matter back to Reed to provide Riley and the school system an opportunity to present argument to Reed that he should reconsider and/or limit his ruling.

He wrote that the reasoning and conclusions in Reed’s proposed decision are erroneous and cited various court cases to support his position that the redacted information is exempt from disclosure. McClain argued, in part, that Reed should have considered whether the record “contains information directly related to a student.”

The redacted memo in question refers to when a female student complained to a staff member in January 2019 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.

Many former students have told The Day that Chokas repeatedly touched female students inappropriately and made inappropriate comments to them dating back to 2004. Many 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 testified under oath at the preliminary hearing before Reed 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.

The other issue before the commission on July 22 is The Day appeals that Riley and the school system failed to release complaints and disciplinary actions involving Chokas when it requested them on Jan. 20 and April 11, 2019.

McClain has argued The Day failed to file its appeal within the required 30 days and the commission should dismiss it. The Day has argued that the school system released documents on July 12, 2019, that indicated complaints did exist and were not released, and filed an appeal on Aug. 6, 2019, within the 30-day appeal period. In his recommendation, Reed has agreed with the school system’s position and recommended the commission dismiss The Day’s appeal.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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