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.