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UPDATED: State child advocate report criticizes Stonington's handling of Chokas allegations

Stonington — The state Office of the Child Advocate has found that school officials knew of the sexual harassment allegations against high school teacher and coach Timothy Chokas from 2013 to 2017 and did not take all the steps it could to respond to the allegations before allowing him to resign after more complaints in 2019.

In a 52-page report, the office also criticizes school officials for not documenting or following up on the allegations against Chokas or placing complaints in his file, and pointed out that at least one teacher failed to report concerns about suspected abuse to the state Department of Children and Families or police as required by law.

In addition, the report reveals that school administrators acknowledged they were unfamiliar with the concept of "grooming behavior," in which an adult pays a lot of attention to a child, gradually testing their boundaries as a path toward more sexually inappropriate behaviors.

"One administrator stated that she could not define and/or explain what the term 'grooming' meant," the report states, while high school Principal Mark Friese "told OCA he had thought of sexual harassment as more 'student on student.'"

The report also found the school system did not have any adequate way to disseminate policies and training to staff, students and parents about protections against adult sexual misconduct and how to make complaints. The school system's policy regarding mandated reporting of child abuse is not consistent with state law. The report states the school board is considering a revised policy.

It also found that the system's lack of training and code of conduct may have had the effect, however unintended, of discouraging or reducing reporting of adult sexual misconduct toward students.

However, the OCA praised school officials for implementing numerous policy changes as well as education and training programs for staff and students about adult sexual misconduct in the aftermath of the Chokas allegations. It also said the school system took appropriate steps in response to the allegations against Chokas in 2019.

These findings are just a few of those contained in the detailed report that the OCA released Thursday morning. Child Advocate Sarah Eagan began her review of the school system's framework for preventing, investigating and responding to adult sexual misconduct and the actions school officials took after The Day began publishing a series of stories in June 2019. Her report also outlines the law and responsibilities that school systems have to prevent and respond to sexual harassment and violence.  

Eagan also wrote that because adult sexual misconduct goes unchecked and underreported in communities across the country, it is OCA's intention that all Connecticut school districts read the Stonington report to ensure they have appropriate policies and procedures in place to identify and prevent such misconduct.

Eagan's report does not name any school officials, employees or students and refers to Chokas as "Mr. Doe." 

School board response

At Thursday night's Board of Education meeting, Chairman Frank Todisco said the board's attorney is reviewing the OCA report and is scheduled to discuss it with the board next week.

The only other board member to comment on the report was Heidi Simmons, who said that while it contains "some disturbing commentary," there is also a notable commendation that the school system has begun to put procedures in place to identify and prevent sexual misconduct and that all Connecticut school districts should read the report to be educated.

"That Stonington could serve as a model to Connecticut school districts is the good news in the OCA report," she said, adding this only happened "because many brave girls stepped forward and shared their stories and citizens became engaged."

Simmons said school administrators, staff, teachers and students are now more educated about sexual harassment, and comprehensive procedures and programs are now in place to ensure a safe environment for students. She singled out Associate Principal Alicia Dawe and Director of Special Services Allison Van Etten for implementing a sensitive, innovative and comprehensive program that may become a model for other school districts and said this work has reduced the potential for future sexual harassment victims at the high school.

"For the very brave past victims, I express deep gratitude for courageously coming forward and sharing their stories. Their bold efforts have brought an otherwise elusive and insidious behavior to the forefront of our attention," Simmons said.

Numerous allegations

Chokas was hired in 2003 as a technology education teacher, and he also coached girls' soccer and golf and boys' basketball. 

Former students have told The Day and posted on social media that Chokas repeatedly touched female students inappropriately and made inappropriate, sexually charged comments to them dating back to 2004.

The numerous complaints include that he allegedly placed his legs on girls' laps, touched their backs and thighs, stroked their hair, massaged their shoulders, pushed up against them and tickled them. They also allege he asked girls about their boyfriends and what they did together and commented on their appearance. The alleged touching took place in his classroom, in an adjacent photo darkroom and at golf and soccer practice sessions.

Those who have spoken to The Day say the touching was pervasive, occurred daily dating back to 2004, was witnessed by many other fellow students and was well known by teachers and school officials. Many students said they did not report their interactions with Chokas because they said it had gone on for so long with no action taken that they felt nothing would be done to stop it.

A January 2019 complaint by a female student led to Chokas being placed on paid administrative leave. He was allowed to resign and was paid the remainder of his $81,396 salary through the rest of the school year using accrued vacation time. He also received benefits and assurances from the school system they would not discuss or fire him. 

For eight months after The Day revealed the circumstances behind Chokas' resignation, some board members blocked an independent investigation into the handling of the allegations. The board then hired attorney Christine Chinni to investigate. She found there was no evidence of a cover-up by school officials, even though complaints were never placed in Chokas' personnel file.

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, nor the many who posted their allegations on various social media platforms.

During a state Freedom of Information Commission hearing in late 2019, high school Principal Mark Friese and Superintendent of Schools Van Riley testified that they considered the allegations were reports and concerns, not complaints, which meant they did not have to be placed in his personnel file.

The school board has not taken any disciplinary action against Riley, Friese or other school employees. The school system also did not try to revoke Chokas' teaching certificate, which is valid through June 2023. 

The OCA report states that if the school system discloses any information about the allegations against Chokas to a future employer, doing so might violate the conditions of his resignation agreement. This is because there was no investigation pending of Chokas or a "substantiation of abuse" when he resigned, two questions that state law requires Connecticut school districts to ask about a prospective employee. 

The state Department of Education, however, is reviewing his certificate due to his "alleged grooming behavior." 

While the OCA report states that, like Chinni, it found no evidence of a "district coverup," it did find the school system knew of allegations dating back to 2013, when a parent of a female soccer player reported that Chokas "patted girls on the butt," "picked one up and held her like a baby" and wore an unzipped jacket with no shirt underneath. He denied the allegations.

The report states administrators told the OCA that it was a "he said/she said" scenario and Chokas was told to "be careful" with the girls. The report states administrators did not involve the school's Title IX coordinator in the discussions and there are no records or statements indicating there were any efforts made to interview the players who told the parents about the allegations or that Chokas received any classroom or field supervision. Title IX is the federal law that protects people from sexual discrimination in educational programs that receive federal financial aid.

The report also states there is no record of any follow-up investigation by the school system after former Groton City police Detective Dave Thomas provided Riley with the name of a female student who had told him Chokas had touched her bare stomach in the darkroom in 2014. 

In 2014, the report states, school officials received an anonymous call that Chokas was having sex with a student. A school document states that when administrators spoke to Chokas, he denied the allegations and police could not substantiate them.

School system response

In its response to the report, OCA said, the school system disputed the finding that it could have more fully addressed the complaints from 2013 to 2017.

The school system also stated that "legal constraints related to student confidentiality and the underlying personnel matters have limited the District's ability to respond to the press."

Although the district was not able to publicly comment on some of the allegations, "this did not mean that the District was not committed to address the concerns. To the contrary, as noted in the OCA's report, the District was proactive in investigating the community concerns and implementing improvements in procedures and professional development," it states.

"To this day, we remain committed to continually improving the practices that make Stonington Public Schools a safe and healthy teaching and learning environment," it added.

The school system also said that since Chokas left the school system in January 2019, new information continues to come forward both in the news media and the OCA report that was never shared directly with school officials.

"If a student or parent has information about a possible sexual harassment matter occurring in the Stonington Public Schools, we encourage the student and/or parent to report it, so that we may investigate," it said.

The 2017 allegations

Some of the report's harshest criticism came in connection with a 2017 incident in which four female students, who spoke to The Day in 2019, complained to Friese and other high school staff about Chokas' behavior in the classroom and at golf practice. The report states that while there are different versions of what was reported and how it was handled, "no students were ever asked to write a complaint and no complaints were found in (Chokas') personnel file."

The policy in place at the time required students' parents to be notified and students offered the opportunity to file a written complaint, which would have been placed in Chokas' file. Parents of the students have told The Day they were never contacted.       

One of those former students, who spoke to the OCA, said she was subjected to repeated sexual harassment by Chokas in the classroom and at golf practice. She said Chokas grabbed the upper part of her thigh when she was on her phone, came up behind her at practice, wrapped his arms around her and "thrust his body into hers" and once placed a golf club between her legs. She also recalled how he would rest his knee on girls' thighs and massage their shoulders and back in class. She said she and her friends shared their stories with a teacher, who said they should report their concerns to administrators. The report points out that state law requires teachers to report suspected abuse directly to police or DCF and does not require or permit school administrators to be involved as intermediaries in the notification.

The former student told the OCA that when she met with Friese, he did not write anything down and said he would talk to Chokas. She said no one checked in with her after her report and Chokas "was quiet for a week."

"Then it all started up again," she said about his behavior.       

The report states Chokas' personnel file contains no mention of any student-reported concerns in 2017 or written complaints from students and no documentation that the school followed up with Chokas or any of the students or their parents. It states the district's Title IX coordinator was not notified because administrators "did not consider the alleged conduct as being sexual in nature."  

"Given the dearth of documentation regarding follow-up with the teacher or the students, and given the statement from one of the students to OCA, and the 2017 Letter of Concern to Mr. Doe from the Principal referencing multiple concerned students, OCA concludes that it is likely that multiple students made complaints to school administrators of unwelcome touching and personal questions by Mr. Doe, and that investigation and follow-up regarding these concerns was inadequate and inadequately documented," the report says.   

The report states that in 2017 a "Statement of Concern" issued to Chokas by Friese said he would have to develop a "personal action plan" to "prevent your students from developing uncomfortable feelings in your classroom." That plan was never put in writing, and no mention of the letter was put in his personnel file.

The report states the school board was never notified because administrators said the board would be involved as a neutral fact-finder in any potential termination hearing. Administrators, though, never took any action then or ever to fire Chokas.

It also adds the letter of concern stated Chokas' behavior "indicates a possible pattern" that could be misconstrued to be unprofessional and negatively impact the learning environment and his reputation.

When more allegations came up in 2019, the report states a district document refers to just one previous complaint against Chokas in 2017, not the four that were made.

In discussing its finding that the school system could have more fully addressed the allegations made between 2013 and 2017, the report states that following up on a student or parent complaint may develop additional information that a child is being sexually groomed or abused.

The report states that prior to 2019, district documents do not provide any indication that the district considered Chokas' conduct a Title IX violation or that students or parents understood their concerns about him in that light.

The report states that while school staff may have felt that while Chokas' alleged conduct was inappropriate, it was not deemed sexual or harassing and that children will seldom report their concerns to an adult using terms like "abuse" or "harassment." Many girls have described Chokas' behavior as "creepy."

The report says statements from school staff and a former police department youth officer that they would have known if there was a concern about Chokas and were surprised students didn't come to them reflects the need for more staff training regarding sexual abuse and harassment and how to respond in an environment with children.

The 2019 allegations and resignation

The OCA also reviewed district records concerning complaints in January from three students, including one who alleged Chokas "would back into me with his butt as he opened the door to the class" and pressed his knee on her thigh when she was sitting. She said he "ranted" to the class about how he once got in trouble for touching girls and that if anyone had a problem, they should go to him first and not administrators.

"He discussed with me that he thinks school systems are too protective, and that he hates the fact that he isn't legally supposed to touch anyone, especially girls," the girl stated. 

Following those allegations, OCA said the school system reported the complaint to DCF, notified the Title IX coordinator, put Chokas on paid administrative leave and conducted a "meaningful internal investigation into the allegations." DCF decided not to investigate because it did not feel the allegations rose to the level of child abuse.

The Title IX coordinator found Chokas "engaged in conduct that would support a finding that a teacher-to-student sexual harassment in the classroom environment occurred" and recommended the school system take steps to end the harassment. Chokas then signed the resignation agreement.

During its review, the OCA met with DCF and the state Department of Education to discuss ways to improve reporting and training in regards to adult sexual misconduct. The report also contains numerous recommendations for school systems to improve their policies and training.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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