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Seeking the truth

The administration at Stonington High School just wanted it to go away, quietly.

Over many years, the school administration had received complaints that a teacher and coach, Timothy Chokas, acted in a fashion that female students found uncomfortable and inappropriate. There were comments about their looks, questions about their boyfriends, and physical contact.

In fact, Chokas had been warned by his supervisors, instructed to come up with his own game plan for curbing his behavior. But students, who talked among themselves, were kept in the dark. From what they saw, the higher ups apparently didn’t care, because Chokas just kept on teaching.

But, in 2019, yet another student complaint was a final straw. A deal was cut. Chokas could walk away with his salary and benefits through the end of the school year and seek other jobs. Short of some legal obligation, school officials, if asked about Chokas, would only talk about his official record not that, well, unofficial record.

There were no announcements. Chokas just moved on. It was all hush-hush.

But Day Staff Writer Joe Wojtas, the Stonington beat writer, who had heard the concerns about Chokas, wanted to know under what circumstances he had resigned. Stonewalled, he turned to the state’s Freedom of Information Act to get at the facts, to get at the truth.

It was a difficult fight, with the Stonington public schools’ administration repeatedly denying access to records that fell clearly under the act’s provisions for disclosure. Wojtas filed numerous appeals to the Freedom of Information Commission where he, unrepresented, had to confront well-compensated school attorneys fighting to keep records closed.

In time, as the FOI Commission ordered document after document unsealed, the history of misconduct, largely unacted on, became clear. The Board of Education ordered an investigation to learn more about how the situation was tolerated for so long. A second, state investigation, continues. Sexual harassment policies were updated.

This week, the New England Newspaper & Press Association presented Joe Wojtas with its First Amendment Award for his “doggedness and pursuit of the truth.”

Wojtas’ efforts demonstrate the importance of a free and independent press. It is a job he, and we, could not do without the support of our subscribers. And he did it well, indeed. Congratulations, Joe.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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