Stonington — The Board of Education on Tuesday instructed the attorney investigating how school officials handled the complaints against former high school teacher and coach Timothy Chokas to be more aggressive in her approach and try to contact current and former students.
Until now, Christine Chinni of Chinni & Meuser said her direction from the board was to let students, parents, teachers and others contact her, but two weeks ago she said she had not heard from a single student. This came despite many former students telling 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 comments on the numerous stories The Day has published about the controversy.
Board members Jack Morehouse, Heidi Simmons and Alisa Morrison criticized Chinni’s passive approach to the investigation Tuesday, saying the names of students were easy to find, and questioned why she still was asking the board to provide her with contact information for students and parents when she was hired to conduct an independent investigation.
After listening to the board, Chinni said she would immediately begin seeking out students, parents and others whose names have been published in The Day or have spoken to the board. She did not mention if she also would contact the many students who have posted their complaints about Chokas and school officials on various social media platforms but said she had looked at Facebook and Instagram.
Chinni cautioned board members that she could not force people to speak to her.
“That’s important for you to understand. People have to be willing to come forward and be willing to speak to me,” she said.
The strongest criticism of Chinni’s work so far came from Morehouse, who had recommended the board hire a New York City firm that employed a former female FBI agent to do the investigation.
“I don’t have a lot of confidence in the attorney at this time,” Morehouse said. “She needs help.”
Morehouse told Chinni that he knew she was doing her best but that his mother advertises her yard sales better than how the investigation has been advertised. He said posting it on the school system website and listing her contact information in articles in two newspapers is “disrespectful to the people who have come forward.” He added that a friend of one of his daughters, who said she had problems with Chokas, was unaware of the investigation. Board members said current and former students don’t look at the school system website, read The Day or participate in the Stonington Community Forum Facebook page but use other social media platforms.
Morehouse said that maybe the New York City firm, Joseph A. DeLuca Advisory and Consulting Services, which again has offered its help to the board and which Morehouse called “true investigators,” could assist Chinni.
Morehouse told the board that his sister, a resident and veteran FBI agent who investigates the sexual assault of children, is “extremely upset” about the board’s investigation and called it “a joke.”
“I don’t want to be a joke. I want to be part of an organization that takes this seriously,” he said.
Board member Craig Esposito said it was premature to judge the investigation as a success or failure and that board members should instead be making suggestions about how to improve it. Board members agreed they want a thorough investigation that residents can trust.
Morehouse said he wants to know how many students were affected and what teachers and administrators knew about it. He added something happened inside the walls of the school and the board needs to have that information.
Chinni told the board she recently heard from several students who said they had friends who had problems with Chokas but she has not yet heard from those friends.
She said she told the students that if they believe their complaints were not handled appropriately and Chokas’ alleged actions disrupted the learning environment, the only way to address it is for it to come to light so it can’t happen again. She said she also wants to hear from students who did not complain and if there was a reason they didn’t.
“We want their information, we want their story,” Garvey said of those students. “We want them to be heard.”
She added that “this is all new to us. We’ve never done an investigation like this before.”
Chinni said that when she interviewed school officials, such as Superintendent of Schools Van Riley, high school Principal Mark Friese and high school Director of Guidance Margo Crowley, they expressed remorse about how students felt but denied they had received a litany of complaints that didn’t go anywhere. Board members asked why she interviewed school officials without first having information about complaints from students to question them about. Chinni said she told school officials she could conduct follow-up interviews as she received more information.
The expanded scope of the investigation is expected to cost the school board more money, as Chinni told board members that the work was not part of her original quote of $260 an hour for two months of work. The board did not have further discussions with her about the ultimate cost.
Simmons said students feel that “a full year has gone by (since The Day revealed how the complaints were handled) and nothing has been addressed, so why should they trust anyone now?”
Garvey opened the meeting by reading a letter submitted by Pawcatuck resident Tracy Swain, in which she told the board that it was not surprising that alleged victims had not contacted Chinni because “it has been made clear to them that they were not to be believed.”
“The students believe they were failed in the past by all the current staff members and somehow you imagine any of them are going to feel safe to talk to this investigator…” Swain wrote.
Chinni is scheduled to update the board on her progress at its May 14 meeting and then meet with the board again the following week. Anyone with information about Chokas and how complaints were handled can contact her at SPSinvestigation@chinniandmeuser.com or (860) 677-0255.
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 dated back to 2004.
Van Riley and 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.
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.
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.