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    Saturday, July 13, 2024

    Former Stonington teacher allowed to renew license after sexual harassment allegations

    Stonington ― A former Stonington High School teacher and coach who resigned in 2019 amid allegations that he sexually harassed and engaged in unwanted physical contact with numerous female students over his 16-year tenure has been able to renew his state teaching certificate.

    Timothy Chokas, a former high school technology and media teacher and assistant golf coach, now holds a 10-year professional certificate that expires June 30, 2033, after completing a college level ethics course and six months of therapy with a licensed mental health worker, according to the State Department of Education. His license was never suspended until March 2022.

    “He needed to engage in some one-on-one, face-to-face sessions with a person who could provide therapy or counseling to discuss the issues that had occurred and make sure he understood where the boundaries were,” said Nancy Pugliese, chief of the Department of Education Bureau of Investigation and Professional Practices.

    When asked last week about his license renewal, Chokas declined comment.

    Alexandra Kapell, a 2020 Stonington High graduate who served as the student representative to the school board and publicly criticized the way the board handled the allegations against Chokas, was critical last week of allowing Chokas to renew his certification.

    “It’s insane. It’s crazy,” said Kapell, a senior at the University of Connecticut said about the renewal of Chokas’ license. In 2020 she told the school board that the high school “has a massive problem with sexual assault and harassment."

    “It doesn’t seem like a proportionate reaction to me at all, and it also doesn’t mean that he’s a changed or reformed person,” she said about Chokas. “I don’t want to assume they were ill-intentioned in their processes of justice. But at the same time, how is he ever allowed to teach again?”

    When informed of Chokas’ license renewal, school board member Heidi Simmons said she was worried. In 2020, Simmons called on the school board to issue a statement of support to the many girls and their families who say they were subjected to Chokas’ behavior. But no other school board members supported her proposal.

    Simmons added she was unable to further comment publicly. While she declined to explain why, the reason may be related to an agreement the district made with Chokas in 2019 to not fire him or disclose any information concerning his employment to anyone, except as required by law..

    Board of Education Chairman Farouk Rajab did not respond to requests for comment.

    Years of allegations revealed in 2019

    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.

    Chokas' 2019 resignation came almost two years after four other female students brought complaints of unwanted contact to former Principal Mark Friese and current Assistant Principal of Guidance Margo Crowley.

    Numerous other current and former students came forward with their own stories of routinely being made to feel uncomfortable through inappropriate comments and physical contact, including unwelcome shoulder massages and touching on their backs or legs.

    An investigation by the state Office of the Child Advocate found that school officials knew of the sexual harassment allegations against 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.

    The office criticized school officials for not documenting or following up on 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 the wake of the controversy school officials conducted a detailed review of the system’s sexual harassment reporting policies and implemented changes.

    During The Day’s investigation of the allegations, former students told The Day and posted on social media that Chokas repeatedly touched female students inappropriately and made sexually-charged comments to them dating back to 2004. Some students said they told teachers and school staff about Chokas’ behavior. School officials, however, failed to follow written policies in place at the time.

    Former Superintendent Van Riley and Friese testified under oath before the state Freedom of Information Commission in 2019 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 the complaints were not placed in Chokas' personnel file and he was never disciplined.

    An attorney hired by the school board to investigating how school officials handled the allegations against Chokas said in 2020 she found no evidence that any member of the school system administration engaged in a coverup of Chokas’ misconduct or had “actionable knowledge of it. But a review by The Day found attorney Christine Chinni did not interview students central to the complaints against Chokas and only spoke with one teacher.

    Action against Chokas takes 2 1/2 years

    The school system never tried to revoke Chokas’ teaching certificate, which was set to expire in June 2023, though the State Department of Education began an investigation in August 2019, according to Pugliese.

    Two and half years later, the department suspended Chokas’ certification on March 23, 2022, for “other due and sufficient cause.”

    “The investigation included gathering all outside investigative reports completed and other documents, interviews with District administration/staff, getting pictures of the room in which Mr. Chokas worked, and interview with Mr. Chokas,” Pugliese wrote in email responses to questions from The Day in recent weeks.

    Pugliese attributed the lag between the beginning of the investigation to the suspension of Chokas’ certification to the COVID-19 pandemic followed by a period of time for integration and adjustment to Internet-based work and meeting options.

    She said the department entered into a consent order with Chokas, and he was required to complete one of two department approved graduate level ethics courses at his own expense as well as a minimum of six months of therapy with a licensed mental health professional before he could apply to have his certification reinstated.

    Chokas submitted an official transcript showing he successfully completed the four-week University of Phoenix Ethical and Legal Issues for Administrators course in June 2022.

    The department also required Chokas to provide the mental health professional with documentation from the department prior to beginning therapy and received a letter demonstrating that he had fulfilled the requirement. Pugliese did not provide the date of when Chokas completed his therapy.

    “There was a period of probation where he needed to go and do some interventions, and once that probation was completed, his certificate was reissued,” Pugliese said.

    Chokas was then issued a new 10-year professional certificate which is valid from July 1, 2023, through June 30, 2033.

    Pugliese wrote that, since June 30, 2019, no school district has reported Chokas as employed in the state education department’s online employment records, but it was her understanding he is seeking employment. Only public and charter schools and private special education facilities are required to report employment.

    “I know that he was going to be looking for positions, but I don’t know that he has found one yet,” Pugliese said.

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