On Monday evening, Aug. 25, Wilton Public Schools administrators and Bd. of Education members held a meeting for parents in an effort to answer questions and address concerns following last week’s arrest of Wilton Preschool Aide Eric Von Kohorn on charges of possession and distribution of child pornography.
Superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith explained that the meeting was to share information with parents and provide a forum for parents to ask questions. Approximately 50 parents attended the meeting. Also present were several television news crews covering the story.
Just a few minutes into his introduction, Smith made a surprising statement with what he said was “new information” he learned earlier Monday afternoon. Smith said that Jason Sheffield, an attorney for Von Kohorn, called him “at the request of Det. Jon Carreiro” (the investigating officer) to report that Von Kohorn had “volunteered” to take a polygraph test and answer questions about his interactions with children.
“Sheffield reported that the results of the polygraph supported his own beliefs that Mr. Von Kohorn did not inappropriately touch any children,” Smith said.
Later in the meeting, one parent asked what questions had been posed to Von Kohorn during the polygraph; Smith said he has a request in to the attorney for the list of questions, and he will make that information public as soon as he has it.
Smith also revealed that there was a prior matter involving Von Kohorn, after a complaint was made by a family in January 2013, “based on a statement made by their child…having to do with a toileting concern.” Smith said the complaint was “fully investigated by district staff,” who concluded that Von Kohorn was not involved in the toileting of the child. “He was not in the bathroom, Mr. Von Kohorn did not toilet the child.”
According to the superintendent, the school did report the matter to DCF [Department of Children and Families] which reviewed the matter and found “the concern did not rise to a level that would necessitate an investigation.”
Smith said that the district has reached out to DCF and Wilton Police since Von Kohorn’s recent arrest, “to take another look, just to be as safe and sound and sure as we can be with information contained in the investigation report” for that Jan. 2013 matter.
He also said that since Von Kohorn’s arrest last week, two families have contacted him regarding changes in behavior that they observed in their children “that may be as a result of contact with Mr. Von Kohorn.” He explained that Wilton Police are investigating those families’ concerns.
“No Evidence of Harm” Questioned
The meeting included a presentation by Dr. Barbara Rickler, a board-certified child/adolescent/adult psychiatrist and clinical instructor at Yale Child Student Center; school resource officer Rich Ross was present too–Smith introduced Ross by noting that the district has been in “daily contact [with the Wilton Police Department] and we are working with them as we learn new information.”
Both Smith and Rickler repeated the assertion by state police that no events took place on school property and that there is no evidence that Von Kohorn sexual or physically abused any Wilton children. They cited the practice of peer supervision by Von Kohorn’s co-workers, as well as police evidence from the investigation.
In answering questions about Von Kohorn’s job performance and record during the seven years he worked at the preschool, the superintendent said that Von Kohorn had received favorable performance evaluations and established friendships with many staff members. “There were no obvious indications that Mr. Von Kohorn was involved in any illicit activity, which is why the news has so stunned our preschool community.”
Smith reiterated that, “At no time during Mr. Von Kohorn’s tenure [since 2007] in Wilton did we have reason to suspect that he was engaged in illegal or inappropriate behavior. He had no disciplinary actions in his personnel file, and no reports from staff members claiming to have witnessed inappropriate behavior. During the course of their investigation, State Police seized his home computer and found nothing to indicate that Wilton students were harmed.”
During the question and answer portion of the meeting, some parents questioned both the school’s assertion that there had been no reason to be suspicious of Von Kohorn as well as officials’ position that evidence showed no Wilton children were harmed or involved in Von Kohorn’s activities. They cited the January 2013 incident in challenging district statements, suggesting that incident alone conflicts with the district’s position that no Wilton children were harmed by Von Kohorn–one parent called the statements “inconsistent.”
Parents also expressed concern that Von Kohorn’s cell phone was not confiscated by police during the investigation, suggesting that officials cannot say definitively that Von Kohorn didn’t use his cell phone to take images of Wilton students. Smith said he would pursue that with investigators.
School officials were asked about whether existing policies were adequate to protect the students in the preschool, many of whom have special needs, including some who require additional assistance in toileting or who are not highly communicative. Smith said policies will be reviewed as a result of the situation.
Some parents questioned the way school administrators communicated with parents–both the timing of when district administrators knew of the investigation and the delay in notifying parents about Von Kohorn’s arrest. Smith said that, “State Police requested that the district keep the information confidential in effort to protect the integrity of the investigation.”
One parent directed her dissatisfaction toward the investigators who first became aware of Von Kohorn’s alleged activities in April but didn’t contact the school until June 11.
“Aren’t you rip-roaring mad that they didn’t inform the Wilton school system that this man is in a position he’s in, caring for our children? I have a child with special needs in the preschool and she was in his class at that time. I’ve also had two other children go through, and one of them was in all of his classes. I have a lot of concern. It really concerned me that they allowed him to stay in that position.”
In addition, there was some criticism about how the district did not contact families who no longer have children in Wilton schools, or who have moved away–but who did have children in the school during Von Kohorn’s time there.
Smith said if the district missed a group of people, “It wasn’t intentional. I’ve been speaking with local media and trying to put information out as best as I’m able.” He added he would look into whether there were additional parents they needed to reach out to.
As well, some parents spoke up to thank the school officials for being available and open for questions. One parent thanked administrators for their “transparency.”
“I know this is difficult for all of us. Thank you for your efforts,” she said.
Another said he takes comfort in knowing how the preschool program is run, saying, “I think that is one of the best programs we have in the district. I’m heartbroken for [Dr.] Fred [Rapcynski] and the whole staff, the fact that you’re getting this attention because the program is amazing, and what it has done for my child is amazing. I want to stay with the thought that this all happened at home. And that’s what we know at this point.”
Smith said investigators have shared that the images found on Von Kohorn’s home computer “were a mix of both boys and girls, with an age range of 5-13.” He said State Police have no reason to believe Von Kohorn was producing images and that he was downloading and exchanging ‘known’ images via peer-to-peer networks.
“Det. Carreiro noted he sees many of the same images over and over again. He reported he did not recall seeing any images he had not seen in the past,” Smith explained.
When asked whether there was a restraining order preventing Von Kohorn from coming to the school and whether his picture has been shown to bus drivers or other employees, Smith said he was not aware that a picture has been shown, but would take that step if it was determined to be appropriate after consulting school staff. He also said he would talk to detectives about a restraining order, but added that Von Kohorn is not permitted on school property.
Smith also said that as of now, there is no clear cut policy regarding staff cell phones, “but as part of our review we will certainly be addressing that.”
One parent said, “The notion of somebody having a cell phone in a pocket as they’re escorting a child to the bathroom seems disconcerting.”
Smith responded, “Of course. I know for a fact that’s something we’re going to take a hard look at.”
That same parent cited Von Kohorn’s resume and experience and questioned his qualifications for being hired to work in special education. “He had no formal education related to this job. He had certificates in bartending and broadcasting–not relevant. I remember this from several years ago when he was assigned to work with my child. Looking at his resume, thinking, I don’t really see how this person is qualified to be a special ed para. Maybe a recess guy, but a special ed para with a very vulnerable population.”
She added that, “Hindsight is always 20/20 but when you look at somebody who has no educational background and very little experience in that area, it might send up a red flag as to their motives for such a job.”
One parent expressed her disappointment that no investigator involved in the case was at Monday night’s meeting to provide more information about the investigation.
“I would like to hear from a detective, what they’ve been asking him. I’d like to hear more information on what kind of questions you’re asking Mr. Von Kohorn’s colleagues and what they may have witnessed in retrospect that was kind of weird. I’d like to know how much and how often he had the possibility of being alone with any children. I need some help with guiding questions to ask my son. I need more information about how to go about this and from the police. We have a right to more information than the public at large. I can understand that in June they didn’t want to tell us because they didn’t want to harm the investigation, but at this point I need more.”
Smith promised to follow up on her questions, and said he would reach out to Det. Carreiro Tuesday and that it would be helpful to have him speak to preschool parents and talk through elements of the investigation about which they have questions.