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    Op-Ed
    Monday, May 27, 2024

    Who’s protecting Connecticut?

    Either most elected officials in Connecticut don't read the newspapers, which remain the primary sources of state news, or they're indifferent to the increasing negligence in state government. Two shocking developments in recent days seem to have passed without prompting alarm from anyone in authority.

    First Connecticut's Hearst newspapers reported that the state Psychiatric Security Review Board has ordered the release of Tyree Smith, who in 2011 used an ax to kill a homeless man in Bridgeport, ate his brain and eyeballs while drinking sake, and, after his apprehension, told a psychiatrist he wanted to eat more people.

    At trial in 2013 Smith was found insane and sentenced to 60 years at Connecticut's psychiatric hospital. But after only 10 years in captivity, the board says, he has reached "clinical stability," is "medication-compliant," and has been "symptom-free for many years." So he will be sent to a group home in Waterbury.

    What do his prospective roommates think? What do Waterbury residents generally think? Mayor Neil O'Leary's opinion on the issue might be interesting, as well as the opinions of the candidates nominated to succeed him.

    After all, what is the necessity to release Smith from the psychiatric prison? Troublesome people sometimes stop taking their medications, and while not all of them are ax-wielding cannibals, the Psychiatric Security Review Board cannot guarantee that Smith will not suffer a relapse. No one will be watching him around the clock to ensure that he takes his medicine.

    In any case imprisonment of just 10 years for such a grotesque murder cannot seem like justice, no matter how many academic degrees are held by the board members who have decided to set the cannibal free.

    The ink on the cannibal story was hardly dry when The Day reported that a former teacher at Stonington High School, Timothy Chokas, who resigned in 2019 amid complaints that he sexually harassed and molested female students for many years, has regained a teaching license from the state Education Department.

    The chief of the department's Bureau of Investigation and Professional Practices, Nancy Pugliese, told The Day that Chokas took an ethics course and underwent counseling to “make sure he understood where the boundaries were.”

    Did Chokas really not know when he became a teacher that teachers must not exploit students sexually? That has been state law for a long time. And other than the political influence of teacher unions, what was the necessity for restoring Chokas' license? Can he do no job that doesn't involve children?

    Stonington's school administration handled the Chokas case typically — that is, badly.

    The state child advocate's office found that complaints about the teacher were not pursued seriously nor documented in his personnel file. In exchange for his resignation in the middle of the school year, Stonington's Board of Education agreed not to fire him, to pay him six months' salary, and to conceal the reasons for his departure. The Day confirmed that there are no records in Chokas' personnel file about the complaints against him, though some were put in writing and some meetings about him were held.

    The school administration decided to protect its employee, not its students.

    For decades this has been the practice in public education in Connecticut -- to wait until the evidence of a teacher's misconduct is overwhelming and can't be concealed anymore and then induce a quiet resignation, facilitating the teacher's hiring by another school system.

    Stonington's school administration did not seek to revoke Chokas' teaching license. Revocation happened two years after he resigned when the state Education Department heard of the trouble and undertook its own investigation.

    A 2020 Stonington High graduate who served as student representative to the school board, Alexandra Kapell, calls the renewal of Chokas' license "insane." She asks, "How is he ever allowed to teach again?"

    State legislators should put the question to the Education Department.

    Chris Powell has written about Connecticut government and politics for many years.

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