STONINGTON — Stonington High School principal Mark Friese and Superintendent Van Riley on Tuesday defended the school district’s handling of an investigation of a former high school teacher and assistant golf coach who resigned in January after female students had complained of unwanted physical contact.
The officials were responding to an article in The Day of New London that four female students had complained in the spring of 2017 that the teacher, Timothy Chokas, of North Stonington, had touched their backs and thighs ,“leaned up against them,” and “placed his legs on girls’ laps,” massaged their shoulders, and taken other actions that made the girls uncomfortable. The students had taken their complaints to the principal and to Margo Crowley, director of guidance.
Another complaint of inappropriate contact was made against Chokas in December 2018, the article reported.
The news touched off a wave of indignation on social media, and complaints about secrecy at a time when sexual abuse scandals and their repercussions are playing out in several other schools in the region, including Norwich Free Academy and the New London public schools.
School officials gave no reason for Chokas’ resignation, but the newspaper acquired a settlement agreement that showed they had agreed to pay him his $81,396 salary plus benefits. They also agreed not to disclose any information on Chokas’ employment or resignation.
“Our school fosters a culture of trust and communication between students and adults with the number one priority being student safety,” Friese wrote in a letter to Stonington families. “That is exactly why we take any and all allegations so seriously.”
“While we are unable to comment on personnel issues or issues that deal with our students,” he wrote, “we can share with you, without reservation, that in both incidents referenced in the recent articles where a student came forward with a concern, we investigated thoroughly and acted decisively based on the evidence brought forward and obtained from our investigation.”
According to the article, the school board was exempt from releasing potentially incriminating documents about the alleged inappropriate contact because the complainants were minors.
Stonington police likewise said their department could not release any documents on the case if it “involved juveniles or proved to be unsubstantiated,” The Day article stated.
Riley would not say last week if the incidents were reported to local police or the Department of Children and Families, according to the article. On Monday night, however — after more students had come forward with complaints — the superintendent said that school officials had filed a report with DCF, but that the department had decided not to investigate further. A spokesman for DCF said any reports to his department “are considered child protection records under state law,” the article stated.
Friese also said, “Our investigations always include the outside resources we have available, such as our district leadership, Stonington PD, and DCF when appropriate.”
In his letter, Riley wrote that “our top priority is always student safety.” “I want our students and parents to know that we take every concern/complaint seriously and follow through on every one,” Riley wrote. “I would like to share more details with students and parents about these issues but cannot due to legal constraints related to personnel issues.”
“Our administrators … followed strict guidelines and procedures related to issues about the teacher in question,” Riley wrote. “They investigated every concern and acted appropriately based on the results of the investigation. … I am certain they followed proper protocols within the confines of the law.”
According to The Day’s article, which appeared June 22, the Stonington Board of Education was not told about the complaints against Chokas, and board members were not informed of his resignation until after the fact. Members of the board have declined to comment.
Riley emphasized the bottom line: “The final result is the teacher resigned and is no longer employed by the Stonington Public Schools.”
Friese asked for the community’s understanding: “It is our hope that our staff is not judged on our inability to comment about personnel decisions, but are judged on our history of student-centered practices and outcomes.”