Faith in the system


I’m going to be honest, one of my weaknesses is always believing the best in everyone. Students in my classroom hear me repeatedly say, “Be better tomorrow than you were today.” I consider a student’s mistakes or missteps to be an honest attempt at finding success – and sometimes my faith in humanity burns me. In my time in the classroom, I have come to accept being burned by students because they are still discovering their own path in the world, but I never expect to be burned by adults…especially adults investigating extremely serious claims against a teacher. However, throughout the 17-month ordeal my friend and colleague Aaron Knodel endured, my faith in the professional investigative process was extremely shaken. 

 Previously, I wrote about the delicate balance of discussing false accusations and explained that Bureau of Criminal Investigation agent Mike Ness should be held responsible for all outcomes after these false accusations resulted in five felony charges against Aaron. I visited with agent Ness on two separate occasions, in February and March of 2014. I will never forget those interactions and the faith I lost in the system as a result. 

 Before making arrangements for our meeting, Ness ordered me to remain silent. His exact words still ring in my ear, “I’ve charged people with contempt for a lot less.” (Sidenote: I found out later his threat had no legal weight). I was speechless. My friend and colleague was being investigated – a worst-nightmare scenario for all teachers. I wanted to meet and cooperate with Ness immediately so he could start searching for the truth and end this nightmare for Aaron. 

 My faith in the process and my naïve optimism for human goodness ultimately failed me. Ness never attempted to find the truth. In fact, he only interviewed two professional colleagues – and he only asked questions about a portion of one of the five charges. Ness never accepted any of the recommendations I offered for people to interview. I suggested talking to other teachers (one co-teacher was in Aaron’s room every day). I gave names of students who would be able to help him find the truth. He never interviewed Aaron, his wife, other teachers, past students (except the accuser’s friends), babysitters, daycare providers, counselors, administrators, etc. I was extremely cooperative and willing to offer any information that I had because I was confident once Ness found the truth he would realize the allegations were false. 

Here is the problem: Ness was never concerned with verifying the claims – he only wanted to find enough information to file charges. He never questioned me about any specific allegations. Any specific references would have made it easy to find information to help him. He only vaguely referenced sexual misconduct. Yet, the police report published in August states the accuser said she and Knodel had sexual contact in his West Fargo High School classroom on five to 10 occasions “before, during, and after school hours.” Ness never asked questions about specific times or dates.  It wasn’t until the deposition of the accuser, one year after the investigation began, that she mentioned it was before school and during lunch. If Ness would have known these specific allegations during the investigation, I could have told him I ate lunch with Aaron every single day starting the second week of school. Every. Single. Day. I could have told him that finding privacy at WFHS is virtually impossible. Every department teacher has a key to your room and students are always entering/leaving. If he was truly searching for the truth to these accusations, I would have expected him to ask about the school environment and those specific time periods.


Assistant Attorney General Jonathon Byers actually asked me in cross-examination why I didn’t offer this information about the school day to Ness during the investigation. My response, “He didn’t ask.” And after thinking about it, I don’t think he really knew what he was looking for at that time. There weren’t any specifics to the claims. He was searching for a way for her accusations to fit during the process of the investigation. It was never an attempt at finding truth, but finding enough to charge. 

 Ness used unethical investigative methods to search for his charges. He used leading questions, misinterpreted interview responses, shifted word choice, intimidated participants and manipulated “expert” opinions. He asked his BCI colleague, Troy Kelly, to conduct the handwriting analysis. Kelly took a 27-hour course where the description specifically states successful completion does NOT qualify individuals to make expert opinions in legal cases. In my time teaching students investigative reporting strategies, these would all be covered under the unethical chapter. 

The other colleague interviewed is listed in the police report as the one who “saw the student driving Knodel home and questioned him about it. Knodel ‘blew it off’ and told the teacher it wasn’t the student.” However, after conversations with the colleague and reviewing the investigation documents, he never gave any kind of indication that this situation occurred. In fact, he denied it during the course of the interview. It was also never addressed during the trial.

 After time to reflect and examine Ness’s approach to this investigation, it is obvious to see he was never intent on finding the truth. After presenting his findings to the Grand Forks County prosecutor, they refused to pursue it. Ness took his information to Byers (in the same government office as BCI) and together they compiled the five criminal complaints against Aaron without the proper due diligence to verify the truth to those claims.

Another private investigator logged numerous hours and actually completed a thorough investigation of individuals on both sides of the complaints. He left this message with the defendant, “I have submitted my final bill as you can see there is no charge, consider this my contribution to a man who was wrongfully accused and did not deserve what happened.” Given the facts presented during trial it is easy to see Ness was never intent on performing a complete investigation into these extremely serious accusations. If he would have sought the truth, charges would never have been filed. 

 My involvement in this investigation has left me less optimistic in the professional standard of others. The day I received the call from Ness I thought all professionals do their best to uphold the standards of their profession to the best of their ability. Special agent Mike Ness proved to me that the system is only as strong as the people working within it, and our system is weak. In my classroom I will try to continue to hold students to a higher standard with hopes that they will move beyond my classroom and become ethical, responsible professionals to correct the system. 

Stay tuned for:  “Unbalanced investigation threatens all teachers” Jeremy Murphy is a journalism and English teacher at West Fargo High School in West Fargo, North Dakota. This blog represents his observations from his professional growth in his nine year career. In no way should this be mistaken for advice or any form of professional expertise. If you are looking for an expert in teaching, English and/or life, you are on the wrong site. You can follow Jeremy on Twitter at @mr_jmurphy or email him at jpmurphy@west-fargo.k12.nd.us

Walking the delicate line


It has been more than a year since my last official post. It was the most difficult year in my professional career. My friend and colleague during the past 10 years, Aaron Knodel, was falsely accused of sexual abuse of a former student. Knowing the details of the incomplete investigation and understanding Aaron’s dedication to his students made it difficult for me to complete my daily professional responsibilities. It has provided me with ample time for reflection on my role as a teacher and the devastating impact these false allegations will have on future students and teachers. Now that the trial has concluded and Aaron has been exonerated, these topics and more will be covered in future posts. For today, a letter to the editor in today’s edition of The Fargo Forum (6/28/15) has correctly emphasized my primary concern.

The letter, “Victims must be respected”, is written by Janelle Moos – the executive direct of CAWS and Sandy Tibke – the executive director of Prevent Child Abuse North Dakota. Its main premise cannot be argued. All victims of any type of abuse should be respected and provided the compassion they deserve. The problem lies in the authors’ connection with Aaron’s accuser. Through the just and unbiased process of the judicial system, all five criminal complaints against Aaron were shown to be false. The authors explain they cannot act as judges, but false claims are “extremely rare”. They express the need to show compassion and respect for Aaron’s accuser, which creates a difficult line people must walk.

A delicate balance exists between holding the accuser accountable for false claims and assuring that future survivors who choose to come forward won’t be vilified for their claims. Walking the tightrope between comforting actual victims of abuse and discouraging future false allegations seems impossible after watching conversations about this case. As an individual who taught and coached the accuser and worked closely with the accused, I was a part of the unjust investigation that led to the false criminal complaints. Even with this unique knowledge during the span of the 17-month ordeal, it was still difficult to publicly speak toward Aaron’s innocence without being labeled as “attacking the victim.”

Tibke and Moos subtly address this in their letter by using the term “accuser” instead of “victim” when mentioning the young woman who made the false claims. The reader can infer they do not see the young woman as a victim, but they still claim she deserves compassion and respect. The blog of a former student addresses this same concern, although she incorrectly assumes Aaron’s guilt (Editor’s note: Since this post published, the author has made her blog private. Her comments and my response are below) These authors correctly put the focus where it should be, on actual victims of abuse, by encouraging survivors to come forward despite the disappointing public disparagement of Aaron’s accuser.

This leaves us with a continuing dilemma – who should be held responsible for these false claims reaching the level of five felony charges? If the public is unable to hold the accuser accountable, where should we look? In my opinion, all attention should be turned toward the investigative process and the work of two agents with the Bureau of Criminal Investigation, Mike Ness and Troy Kelly. As one juror recently said, “How could they drag someone through this with what they had?” That is the question we should be asking our state officials while still walking that delicate balance between discouraging false claims and respecting actual abuse victims.

For now, Moos and Tibke provided for a timely discussion on this issue. Future posts will examine the process of this investigation and trial, how it impacts current and future teachers and how we can move on from the scars left by these false claims.