Stonington — The attorney hired by the school board to investigate how school officials handled the complaints against former high school teacher Timothy Chokas has told the board she has not yet heard from a single person who says her or his allegations against Chokas went unaddressed after being shared with a staff member.
Over the past 15 months, The Day has spoken to many former students who say Chokas repeatedly touched female students inappropriately and made inappropriate comments to them dating back to 2004. Some, including a school board member, have said they brought their complaints to school staff. Many others have posted their complaints about Chokas and school officials on their Facebook and Instagram pages, the Stonington Community Forum Facebook page and comments on the numerous stories The Day has published about the controversy.
School system documents show students complained about Chokas dating back to 2013 and on two occasions he was ordered to come up with plans to avoid touching female students.
Attorney Christine Chinni of Avon, who was hired by the board to do the investigation, has asked people to contact her about Chokas. She told the board when she was hired that she did not plan on tracking down students who complained about him to see if they will share that information with her.
After board Chairwoman Alexa Garvey read a letter from Chinni, who updated the board about the progress of her investigation, board members expressed concern about its progress and approach.
“It’s about process for me. At the end I want to say we had a good investigation. I want to be done with it,” said board member Jack Morehouse, who initially had recommended the board hire a New York City firm that employed a former female FBI agent. “I don’t want people from the general public coming up to the podium (at meetings) and saying ‘you didn’t do this’ or ‘didn’t do that.’”
Garvey said the board would again publicize how people can reach Chinni at SPSinvestigation@chinniandmeuser.com or (860) 677-0255 and be interviewed remotely. She said the board will see in a week or two if the approach is working or if another avenue needs to be considered.
Chinni told the board that she had planned to conduct interviews of staff and any witnesses, alleged victims or others with relevant information, in person. But she said Gov. Ned Lamont’s shutdown of schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented her from conducting any face-to-face interviews.
She said her firm created a news release concerning the investigation and posted it on the Stonington Public Schools website, and The Day published story about it last month. She said the release, which includes her contact information as well as the questions the board has set forth as the issues to be investigated, is prominently displayed on the Stonington Public Schools website.
Chinni said she has since interviewed seven school staff members remotely: Superintendent of Schools Van Riley, Assistant Superintendent Mary Anne Butler, Athletic Director Bryan Morrone, high school Principal Mark Friese, Special Education Director and Title IX Coordinator Allison Van Etten, high school Director of Guidance Margo Crowley and high school Assistant Principal Neil Curland. She said she is in the process of setting up interviews with School Resource Officer Thomas Paige and golf coach Arthur Howe.
She also reported that she spoke with three individuals who contacted her by email. She said one was a former high school staff member, one was a former student and a third was an anonymous adult male who was reaching out in support of Chokas but would not provide his name.
“To date, no one has contacted me with direct knowledge of any allegation concerning Mr. Chokas’s conduct that he or she shared with any staff member of the Stonington Public Schools and which went unaddressed. I have contacted everyone who has sought to speak with me about this matter. I am hopeful that the Board’s discussion at its virtual Board meeting will serve to remind the community about the ongoing investigation and encourage all individuals with relevant information to contact me,” Chinni wrote.
Garvey also told the board Thursday night that its attorney has not received a response from State Child Advocate Sarah Eagan about the status of her review of whether the school system followed its own policies and procedures regarding sexual harassment in the Chokas matter and if any changes are needed.
Eagan told The Day last week that her review, which began last June after The Day published its first report about Chokas’ resignation, “is near completion” but said she will delay the delivery of her draft report to the school board due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It just doesn’t make sense to deliver a draft report to a local agency mired in crisis management,” she told The Day, adding that “realistically, we have to give folks a real chance to navigate their way through this crisis before responding.”
A review of the policies and procedures by The Day in January shows administrators repeatedly failed to follow their own requirements when handling the numerous complaints against Chokas. That same month, school officials outlined a number of steps it had taken to update its sexual harassment policies and procedures in light of the controversy.
The numerous complaints against Chokas involve alleged inappropriate touching of and making inappropriate comments to female students. Those who have spoken to The Day say the touching was pervasive, occurred daily and dates back to 2004.
Superintendent Van Riley and high school Principal Mark Friese testified under oath that the various reports lodged against Chokas by students, referred to in school documents and emails in 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2019 and from the girls themselves, were not considered complaints but “reports” and “concerns.” This meant complaints were not placed in Chokas’ personnel file.
Chokas was never disciplined for his alleged actions. 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. The district also agreed not to fire him or disclose any information concerning his employment to anyone, except as required by law.