Education board revises non-fraternization policy

After former preschool paraprofessional Eric Von Kohorn was arrested for child pornography in August 2014, the Wilton Board of Education decided to review and revise its non-fraternization policy.

Von Kohorn later admitted to helping a Wilton student to the bathroom and a local family brought a civil lawsuit against the town and school district in November 2015, alleging he sexually abused their daughter — referred to as “Jane Doe” — when she was a preschool student during the 2012-13 school year.

“The trouble for me is that, administratively, there wasn’t the kind of follow-up that you’d expect,” Superintendent Kevin Smith said during the education board’s March 31 meeting. “There should have been follow-up. I’ve really struggled with that.”

As a result, Smith said, the district launched a review of all its personnel files and policies and examined its procedures to see if they “really address those policies.”

During its June 23 meeting, the board approved revisions to the eight-year-old non-fraternization policy, which prohibits any sexual relationship, contact, or sexually nuanced behavior or communication between a school employee and student while the student is enrolled in the Wilton Public Schools.

Smith said one of the revisions makes sure the policy addresses “all those who come into contact with the kids in our schools.”

Since the policy appeared on a board agenda earlier this year, said Smith, “there’s been significant interest from folks in the community,” including resident Marianne Gustafson, who “has provided some really good feedback.”

“Consequently, because we want to get it right, we have presented it, taken it back and in committee, worked on drafting what I think is a very strong policy,” said Smith.

Compared to the previous policy, Smith said, the revised one:

  • “Strengthens the language around appropriate boundaries and behaviors;

  • Explicitly states expectations;

  • Highlights examples of prohibited behaviors;

  • Conveys an understanding that the staff is to avoid inappropriate behaviors [and] avoid the perception of impropriety.”

“We added language around reporting — the statutory obligation that staff have to report to the Department of Children and Families here in Connecticut any suspected child abuse and any suspected abuse by staff members,” Smith added.

“We also required reporting to the director of human resources and the superintendent of any suspected abuse or concern.”

The reason for this, Smith said, is to “further promote a ‘see something, say something’ atmosphere in our schools.”

While the policy stipulates that the director of human resources is to “investigate any concern,” said Smith, a recommendation was made that the district “contract with independent investigators for all concerns.”

“There have been cases in the past — not necessarily around fraternization, but in other matters — where we have contracted with independent investigators,” he said, “so that’s a practice that’s in place.”

Smith said he believes it’s the responsibility of the human resources director to “conduct initial investigations,” but “as things are learned and we need … an independent investigator,” he said, “we would certainly do that.”

The policy committee has also developed and is working on drafting guidelines that would correspond with the revised policy, said Smith.

“These guidelines would further expand the necessity of establishing and maintaining appropriate boundaries,” he said, “and include further detailing of examples of inappropriate behaviors.”

Smith said employees will also sign a paper acknowledging the non-fraternization policy, which will be put in their personnel files.

Overall, Smith said, he believes the revised non-fraternization policy — “coupled with our employee conduct policy, the reporting of suspected child abuse, sexual abuse prevention training and hazing policy” — clearly detail the expectations for school district staff.

Public discontent

Wilton resident Patricia Kohler told The Bulletin she questions why it has taken “two or so years for these new policies to be implemented” when there have been a number of “very disturbing” scandals like the one involving Von Kohorn.

“Why has it taken such a push from a handful of parents behind the scenes — one who provided an expert? Why was this not made a top priority and championed by school officials and the Board of Education?” said Kohler.

“Why are we so willing to look at disturbing cases in the media that happen elsewhere but not what happens right here on our own door step?”

Von Kohorn was charged with illegal possession of child pornography in the second degree and formally sentenced in October 2015 to six years in prison, suspended after two years served, and 10 years probation.

A trial management conference for the “Jane Doe” civil lawsuit is scheduled for Feb. 22, 2017. If the dispute cannot be resolved then, a jury trial is slated to begin March 14, 2017. The plaintiff party is seeking compensatory damages in excess of the minimum $15,000, but if the matter comes to verdict, the award will “likely” exceed $50,000, according to the scheduling order.

“Little Jane Doe was ours. Where is the outpouring of support for her and her family?” said Kohler. “Who is looking out for the safety of our children? We all should be.”

Click here to view the revisions to the non-fraternization policy (P-4118.24).