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    Sunday, February 25, 2024

    Stonington school board member wants statement issued supporting Chokas students

    Stonington — Board of Education member Heidi Simmons has suggested to her fellow board members that before moving on from the controversy surrounding allegations of inappropriate behavior by a former high school teacher, the board should issue an official statement of  support for all students and families adversely affected.

    In addition, she suggested the board pledge to continue to ensure that procedures and training programs are being put in place to prevent such behavior from occurring again.

    Simmons made her comments at last Thursday's school board meeting. No board members responded to her suggestion. Board Chairman Frank Todisco said her proposal would be placed on the agenda of a future meeting for discussion with input from the school board attorney. A statement that acknowledges that numerous students were sexually harassed for years by former high school teacher Timothy Chokas before he resigned in January 2019 could expose the school system to legal liability if former students file a lawsuit.

    Attorney Christine Chinni presented the school board last month with her investigation of how school officials handled the Chokas allegations, saying there was no evidence of a cover-up by school officials. That report can no longer be found on the school system website but can be found by performing a Google search.

    The school board did not issue an apology to the girls who allege they had been the subject of inappropriate touching and sexually charged remarks from Chokas.

    In compiling her report, Chinni failed to seek out and interview female students central to the complaints about Chokas and who are mentioned in school system documents as well as the many who posted their allegations on various social media platforms since The Day began reporting in June 2019 about the reasons behind Chokas' resignation. Chinni has said she let people contact her with their concerns.

    Board members have not criticized Chinni's report.

    Behavior was 'sexual bullying'

    Simmons, who was one of the board members who pushed for an independent investigation when other members blocked one for eight months, has stressed that the school system must acknowledge that what the girls endured was sexual harassment so they can begin to heal.

    "We've not done anything for these girls yet," Simmons said Monday. 

    Simmons has said that Chinni's report and a January 2019 letter from Director of Special Services Allison Van Etten, the district's Title IX coordinator, shows that Chokas' behavior was sexual harassment, which she called "sexual bullying."

    She said the board's job is to make sure the school environment is safe for students and to recognize their vulnerabilities.

    "Acknowledging that Chokas' behavior was sexual harassment is the beginning of the healing for the victims. They now know that their creepy feelings and discomfort were valid. And that validation relieves guilt of suggesting something happened that did not. It happened. And they were victims of sexual harassment," Simmons told the board.

    Simmons added that her fellow board members may think that she is "belaboring" the issue.

    "Please understand, I want to make sure that in moving on we are not leaving any girls behind. Victims of Chokas' sexual harassment have spoken with me in the last few months and share that they still feel that they have not been heard. I would like to conclude this Chokas chapter with letting these girls know that we hear them."

    In the case of Chokas, school officials failed to comply with school board policies regarding sexual harassment such as giving female students the opportunity to fill out a written complaint. This meant no complaints were ever placed in Chokas' personnel file and he was never disciplined.

    The school system, meanwhile continues to wait for a report from the state Office of the Child Advocate, which began a review in July 2019 into whether the school system followed its policies in the Chokas matter.

    Improved training, reporting

    Also at Thursday's meeting, Van Etten outlined the extensive steps the school system has taken since Chokas resigned to prevent and respond to sexual harassment.

    "We want to make sure we address any concerns the public had about the ability to report," she said.

    Van Etten explained that students will no longer be required to make their initial complaint in writing. She said school officials want to encourage students to go to any staff member or trusted adult they feel comfortable with to help them fill out the complaint. She said they could also tell a friend, who could then alert a school staffer or make an anonymous complaint. The Title IX section of the school system website has a link to the complaint form as well as to policies and training videos.

    She said that due to changes in federal law, a system has been set up in which a minimum of two people would be involved in any complaint. One, such as the school's assistant principal, would investigate the complaint and then present a summary of the findings to an "unbiased decision maker" such as the school principal.

    Van Etten said school administrators have undergone updated sexual harassment training and met with representatives from the state Department of Children and Families and Safe Futures of New London. Staff members have also undergone sexual harassment training, met to discuss staff-student relationships, updated their mandatory DCF training one year earlier than required and received the state's teacher code of conduct. The student handbook has been updated so students know whom to contact if they have a problem and where to find policies and the complaint form, and they have attended assemblies on Title IX issues. Van Etten said students and parents will also be consulted about improving school policies.

    Also at last Thursday's meeting, high school Assistant Principal Alicia Dawe and high school teacher Ann Marie Houle explained the VOICE program, which is designed to empower students in kindergarten through 12th grade to develop the skills and belief systems to advocate for themselves and their peers and develop the capability to report concerns about their safety and the well-being of others as well as concerns about the integrity of their learning environment.

    Many students have said they did not know whom to talk to about Chokas alleged behavior or felt their complaints would not be taken seriously because school administrators had not stopped his behavior in the past or taken disciplinary action against him.

    j.wojtas@theday.com

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