Since news broke last week about the arrest of Eric Von Kohorn, a former Wilton Preschool paraprofessional, on charges of child pornography possession, school officials have stepped up efforts to reach out to parents amid concern and questions about whether any Wilton children were ever in any danger.
Von Kohorn was one of six people arrested by the CT State Police Computer Crimes Investigations unit on Wednesday, Aug. 20. The lead detective in the case is State Police Detective Jonathan Carreiro.
On Friday, Aug. 22, in the third email in as many days from superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith to Wilton parents, the schools announced a public meeting scheduled for tonight at the Middlebrook School auditorium for parents to meet with police and mental health professionals as well as with school administrators.
The letter said parents will have an opportunity to ask questions at the meeting, and it also provided an email address for parents to submit questions in advance. [The letter is attached at the end of this article; click to enlarge it.]
In a weekend phone interview with GOOD Morning Wilton, Smith said he knows some parents still are worried even though police have assured school officials that no children were involved in Von Kohorn’s alleged online child pornography activity.
“No, we are not going to [simply] accept the investigators’ assurances. What the investigators—the State Police and the Federal Department of Homeland Security—investigated was his online activity. I have a call into Det. Carreiro and parents have asked for more specifics about how they know, but they felt very confident that these images that Mr. Von Kohorn were looking at were not of Wilton Children. So I accept that,” Smith said.
But he is also well aware that parents are concerned that Von Kohorn’s inappropriate behavior extended beyond just what police have discovered–that perhaps Wilton children were endangered while at school.
“Some other fears are that his behavior went beyond simply looking at pornography. We’ve received some calls from parents concerned about Mr. Von Kohorn’s interactions with children. That was what the third letter was really speaking to.”
According to Friday’s letter, the school has created what they called “a system” to hear those specific, individual concerns and handle them appropriately.
“If that means involving the Wilton police, we’ll do that. If that means making a referral to DCF [Department of Children and Family], we’ll do that too. We’re trying to be as open and as responsive as possible,” Smith says.
The letter instructed parents with such concerns to reach out to school clinical social worker Jim Martin, preschool director Dr. Fred Rapcynski or assistant superintendent for special services Ann Paul.
Some parents have questioned the school’s decision to wait to alert parents about Von Kohorn’s employment status and the fact that he was under investigation by the state for alleged child pornography charges.
According to the timeline of events Smith gave GMW.com when news of the arrest broke, the district placed Von Kohorn on administrative leave and blocked him from interacting with students in June, as soon as law enforcement officers informed school administrators about the investigation.
The first time the school notified parents about the situation was following Von Kohorn’s arrest on Wednesday, Aug. 20—more than two months after the investigation began. Smith took over as superintendent on July 1.
“It is a personnel matter and a legal matter. So to disclose that information at that time would have been a privacy violation. It wasn’t public knowledge. The communication we received from an attorney working with the district that the arrest was going to be made, that was the start date we could start communicating to people, because that’s when it became public information,” Smith explained.
One question that a parent posed to GMW.com—when did investigators first learn of Von Kohorn’s activities? Smith says Det. Carreiro recently told him that the preschool aide came to police attention in April.
Given that Smith just began in his position and almost immediately had to take on a major controversy such as this, especially one that involves children, it’s worth acknowledging that his first steps have had to lead him through a potential minefield. Smith says he always tries to err on the side of open communication, and that he has brought with him to the new Wilton job a policy of openness and transparency.
“Since I’ve been a school leader, as an approach, my practice has been to be as forthright and open as possible, and I expect that from the administrators with whom I work. There’s an adage that sunshine is the best antiseptic. That’s part of our obligation to the community, to be open,” he says, adding that there are sometimes legal considerations as well.
“Depending on the case, we are sometimes governed by confidentiality laws. We deal with student records, we deal with personnel matters; there are sometimes situations where we are bound by law not to be able to disclose. But if there’s information I can share, I will share.”
One parent, whose two children are former preschool students and who were in class with Von Kohorn, agreed to speak to GMW.com if her name or her children’s names were not used. She said that she was very surprised when she heard the news of the arrest. “Then your mind starts wandering. It’s taken me a few days to process the whole thing.”
She gives props to the district for how they’ve handled things so far.
“They’ve been very proactive and responsive, and have really tried to get the news out. The more open they are–I’ve spoken with several administrators, and they’ve sat down with parents, they’ve called parents, they’ve returned all my phone calls and emails. I’ve never gotten, ‘I can’t talk to you about this,’ or ‘I can’t discuss this with you.’ They’re really trying to address all the questions. There are still questions out there that even the school doesn’t have an answer to–but what they can answer, I feel like they’ve been very forthcoming with. They’ve done as good a job as they can, because there are a lot of legal concerns. I’m not sure what more they could have done,” she says, adding, “It’s been a two-way conversation. Let’s hope it stays that way.”
One additional thing the parent said the school could be proactive about is examining current policies regarding adults being alone with children, especially in the preschool where some of the children need diaper changes and assistance in the bathroom.
“Maybe now they should definitely look at their policies. I don’t know what other schools have. I assume it’s one on one. [Teachers] will start worrying and not want to go in a bathroom one-on-one with the kids. I think it’s definitely something they should look at, especially at toiling and stuff like that,” she says.
Smith said the school will be examining and re-examining everything as a result of what’s happened.
“An event like this, it has already prompted all of us to look at the practices we have in place. Dr. Rapcynski has put together a pretty exemplary preschool program. But of course events like this cause us to go back and re-examine everything, just to ensure we’re doing everything in our power to insure the safety of students. Will that force us to change anything? I think it’s premature to say so at this time. It’s going to take time to walk through policies and practices. My sense from Dr. Rapcynski is that all staff members who knew Eric are going back and combing through every activity and interaction they had. It’s a real shock for everybody. But we always go back and review practices and policies to ensure the safety of kids.”
Among the attendees at tonight’s meeting, the school has arranged for Dr. Barbara Rickler, a board-certified child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist, to be there. Rickler is a clinical instructor at Yale Child Study Center and also operates a private practice in Westport and Woodbridge. Also attending tonight’s meeting will be school resource officer Rich Ross from the Wilton Police Department.
In addition, the district is making Rickler available to parents at the preschool on Tuesday morning, 9-10:30 a.m.
(Click the letter to enlarge.)