Stonington — The Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission ordered the school system on Wednesday to provide The Day with an unredacted copy of a January 2019 memo that detailed a complaint about the behavior of former teacher Timothy Chokas.
The commission’s unanimous vote came after The Day last year appealed a decision by Superintendent of Schools Van Riley and the school system to redact a female student’s description of the event from the memo they released to the newspaper.
The school system has spent tens of thousands of dollars over the past year unsuccessfully fighting The Day’s appeal. Last week The Day filed a Freedom of Information request for legal bills related to Chokas that the school system has amassed since Jan. 1. Last year, the school system spent more than $96,000 on Chokas-related legal bills.
Asked after the commission’s decision when the school system would comply with the commission’s order, school board attorney Kyle McClain wrote in an email, “that minimally, the record at issue in that matter will not be released until the Commission’s final decision and order is issued in writing according to the Commission’s procedures.”
Riley and the school system also has the option of appealing the commission’s ruling to the state Appellate Court. That would require the school system to spend tens of thousands of dollars more fighting the commission’s ruling.
This week school board members Alisa Morrison, Heidi Simmons and Jack Morehouse asked acting school board Chairman Farouk Rajab to schedule a meeting Thursday to discuss who makes decisions on Freedom of Information issues and costs and how to conduct Riley’s upcoming annual evaluation. Simmons and Morrison said Wednesday that board members have been told the meeting could not take place because Riley and McClain will not be available. The three board members said they also had asked the two items be placed on the agenda for Tuesday’s board meeting but their request was ignored.
Through Dec. 31, 2019, the school system and school board has spent almost $100,000 on legal fees related to the Chokas controversy and much of that money has been spent on fighting FOI requests from The Day.
The redacted portion of the memo from high school Principal Mark Friese to Riley titled SUBJ: INVESTIGATION of STUDENT ALLEGATION OF INAPPROPRIATE CONTACT BY A TEACHER.” contains a statement by an unidentified female student who alleged that on numerous occasions, Chokas touched another female student and made comments that made her feel uncomfortable. 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. The district also agreed not to fire him or disclose any information concerning his employment to anyone, except as required by law.
The name of the student and Chokas do not appear in the memo, just her initials. At an FOI hearing before Wednesday’s decision, The Day did not dispute the redaction of the student’s initials.
Riley and McClain have argued that state and federal laws allow the details of the student’s complaint in the memo to be redacted because the document is an education record of the student. They also argued the memo is a record of the state Department of Children and Families.
The Day argued that the student’s name is not in the memo and thus it is not a student record but instead a record of teacher misconduct, which must be released under state law. The Day also argued that the memo is not a DCF record because Riley testified at a preliminary hearing before Reed that DCF never investigated the complaint.
At Wednesday’s Freedom of Information Commission hearing, commission members agreed that if the unredacted memo were released, the student could not be identified and her privacy would not be jeopardized.
Before making its decision, the commission removed one of the many court cases cited in its proposed decision because it recently had been overturned by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Many former students have told The Day that Chokas repeatedly touched female students inappropriately and made inappropriate comments to them dating back to 2004. Many others have posted their complaints about Chokas and school officials on their Facebook and Instagram pages, the Stonington Community Forum Facebook page and in online comments on the numerous stories The Day has published about the controversy.
But Riley and Friese testified under oath at the preliminary hearing before Reed 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 complaints were not placed in Chokas’ personnel file and he was never disciplined.
Also on Wednesday, the commissioners dismissed a second appeal from The Day that Riley and the school system failed to release complaints and disciplinary actions involving Chokas when it requested them on Jan. 20 and April 11, 2019.
The commission agreed with McClain’s position that the Day failed to file its appeal within the required 30 days and the commission should dismiss it. The Day has argued that the school system released documents on July 12, 2019, that indicated complaints did exist and were not released, and filed an appeal on Aug. 6, 2019, within the 30-day appeal period.