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    Monday, March 04, 2024

    Some complainants say they were never interviewed by Chokas investigator

    Stonington — A review of the investigative report about the allegations against former high school teacher Timothy Chokas shows some students central to the complaints against him were not interviewed.

    The Board of Education hired attorney Christine Chinni in February to investigate how school officials handled the sexual harassment allegations against Chokas, a former high school teacher and coach who resigned in January 2019.

    Chinni, who has estimated the cost of the probe at about $20,000, did not respond to an email and phone message requesting an interview. The Board of Education will hold a virtual meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday to discuss the report. 

    Chinni's report states she conducted 32 remote interviews due to the COVID-19 pandemic and five follow-up interviews totaling 50 hours. She interviewed a total of 12 current and former students, most of whom related stories of Chokas massaging their shoulders, backs and legs; as well as school administrators, parents and a handful of staff members. She does not name the students in the report.

    But on Sunday, Olivia Bayer told The Day that Chinni never contacted her to ask questions about her allegations that Chokas touched her in class and at golf practice in 2017. Bayer has said she was among four students who told a school official that Chokas, who was an assistant golf coach, was touching them and other girls inappropriately.

    Bayer also disputed aspects of the report pertaining to her complaints that were based on interviews with school administrators. One of these is then Director of Guidance Margo Crowley's contention that Bayer's "manner in the meeting (with Principal Mark Friese) did not convey that she was greatly concerned about Chokas' conduct." Bayer said she was visibly nervous and uncomfortable at the meeting.

    The report does not indicate whether Chinni spoke to the other three girls who complained in 2017 about Chokas. All of them spoke to The Day last year.

    Chinni also failed to include in her report any reference to the June letter that 2020 graduate Alexandra Kapell, the student representative to the school board, wrote to the board saying the school has a "massive problem with sexual assault and harassment." Kapell, who had urged the school board to investigate the handling of Chokas allegations at a time when a majority of school board members opposed doing so, said Monday that Chinni never tried to interview her. 

    "A thorough job (on the report) would have been to talk to the people named in the newspaper," she said referring to The Day's reporting.

    Kapell said if she had been interviewed, among the things she would have told Chinni is that Friese would speak to her before each school board meeting and ask what she planned to say in relation to Chokas. In addition, she said Friese called her mother before she submitted her letter to the board and said that, because she was 18, she could get in trouble for what she was about to say.

    Kapell said in one conversation, Friese told her that there are school systems where teachers have affairs with students but Stonington has "50 newspaper articles" written about it in relation to Chokas, "almost as if to minimize the situation at Stonington."    

    Chinni, who wrote that Friese did not remove Chokas as the girls' golf coach even though he had indicated that "Chokas should not be alone with female students," criticized school officials in her report for their handling of the 2017 complaints. Administrators did not place several student complaints about Chokas allegedly touching girls inappropriately and making sexually charged remarks to them in 2017 and 2019 in his personnel file, including the complaint that led to his January 2019 resignation, because they considered them "reports" and "concerns," not complaints.

    But Chinni wrote in her 53-page report that she found no evidence of a coverup: “While there has been a great deal of commentary alleging that the Administration (at) Stonington High School, and even the central Administration of the Stonington Public Schools, knew of Chokas’ misconduct and either took no action, or, worse, discouraged reporting of his misconduct or engaged in a cover up, the investigator found no evidence to support these allegations.”

    A 2017 memo ordering Chokas to develop “a personal action plan that outlines strategies and practices that will prevent your students from developing uncomfortable feelings in your classroom” was not placed in his personnel file but rather in a separate “building file” kept by Friese. School officials have maintained the contents of that building file are not public information.

    In addition, Chinni’s report reveals that in the 2018-19 school year, when one female student alleged Chokas “crossed the line” and began caressing her back and shoulder, a male student reported Chokas’ actions to the guidance department. The male student’s complaint is not in Chokas’ personnel file and Chinni’s report does not indicate she interviewed the male student.

    Crowley, who has since been promoted to assistant principal of guidance, told Chinni she did not ask Bayer to file a written complaint after Bayer complained about Chokas touching her in class and at golf practice in 2017.

    If Bayer had filed a written report, it would have been placed in Chokas’ personnel file. School system policy required school officials to inform students of filing a written complaint and to contact their parents, neither of which occurred, according to the students and their parents who spoke to The Day last year.

    Athletic director and former coach interviewed

    Only one current teacher was interviewed, and that was Bryan Morrone, in his role as high school athletic director. Morrone was accompanied by teachers' union President Michael Freeman during his interview with Chinni. Art Howe, who once taught at the high school and was the school’s golf coach, was interviewed in his latter role.

    It is unclear whether Chinni tried to interview other teachers; none was identified in the report. Many students and former career center employee Kate Milde have said Chokas’ actions were well known among faculty members.

    Pawcatuck resident Tracy Swain said she told Chinni that an attorney was preparing a lawsuit on behalf of several girls she knew who say they had been harassed by Chokas. She said Chinni never asked her for the names of the girls or their attorney.

    She interviewed former police department youth officer Tom Paige, who said that with the exception of the 2017 and 2019 complaints, which school officials discussed with him after they had completed their investigation, he had never heard of any other complaints about inappropriate behavior by Chokas. Paige told Chinni his understanding of the 2019 incident that led to Chokas’ resignation was that he “had asked a female student to hold books and leaned very closely into her.”

    A memo about the incident, which Superintendent Van Riley unsuccessfully tried to keep from being released in full to The Day, states a female student alleged Chokas “would back up into me with his butt as he opened the door to the class” on at least four occasions and pressed his "knee on her thigh when she was sitting.”

    In addition, the girl stated Chokas told students that if they had a problem with him touching girls, they should go first to him and not the administration.

    That memo, which chronicles the school system’s investigation of the incident and the girl’s complaint, also was never placed in Chokas’ personnel file.

    Chinni’s report does not indicate whether she tried to interview Chokas or recent school board members, many of whom have said their own children told them stories about Chokas.

    Chinni did interview former school board member Candace Anderson, who said that in 2016 four girls related stories to her about Chokas touching female students and making inappropriate comments to them. She said she reported the information to school administrators, including Riley, but said she could not provide specific information about the students who were involved.

    Soccer complaints

    Chinni’s report does not state whether she tried to interview former soccer coaches or more than one of the girls on the roster of the 2012 team.

    She interviewed one member of that team, who said Chokas hit her on the buttocks with a cane, pinched her face and massaged her shoulders and thighs. On a number of occasions she said Chokas invited her and other female students to eat lunch in his room, where he made them paninis. She said that when she would sit and eat, Chokas would place his legs on top of hers.

    Emails from 2013 show that Friese and Morrone both talked to Chokas after receiving a complaint that he “pats the girls on the bottom which makes some girls uncomfortable, he has also picked up a girl and held her like a baby, wears his fleece halfway unzipped without a shirt underneath.” Chokas denied the charges.

    In another email, Riley told Friese and Morrone that Chokas and another coach were “to not have any contact with the girls.” It also stated that Chokas had resigned as the assistant girls soccer coach.

    Despite these emails obtained by The Day through a Freedom of Information request, Chinni’s report only quotes Morrone as stating that he concluded that after a parent said Chokas lifted a girl in his arms after a 2013 game, Chokas was actually carrying her off the field because she was injured. Friese and Morrone directed Chokas to “be careful with pats of encouragement.”

    Morrone told Chinni he heard no other complaints about inappropriate behavior by Chokas, despite the school system email that Chokas was patting girls on the buttocks.

    Chinni’s report states Morrone was not informed of the 2017 allegations involving Bayer and the girls’ golf team, even though as athletic director he oversees all sports teams and coaches. That’s because the report states Friese did not inform Morrone but told Howe to “keep an eye on the girls’ team” but did not refer to Bayer’s complaints. Howe said he told Friese that “he did not have eyes on” the girl’s team practices. The report states Friese did not consider removing Chokas as the girls' golf coach, four years after he was removed as an assistant girls' soccer coach.

    Chinni wrote Friese did not report Bayer’s complaints to Allison Van Etten, the school system’s Title IX coordinator, nor the state Department of Children and Families, as he viewed it as an invasion of personal space and not sexual.

    Chinni’s report also states female students did not feel comfortable coming forward to complain in part because they felt Chokas’ behavior was well known in the school and nothing had ever been done about it and school officials had never informed them about how to report such behavior. A number of students expressed the belief that the administration knew about Chokas’ behavior and either condoned it or did not take it seriously.


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