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.

5 responses to “Walking the delicate line”

  1. My training in mock trial, debate, and student congress which I studied with both Aaron Knodel and yourself taught me a lot about how a trial works and even how an argument works. I understand, as I assume you do too considering I learned it from the two of you, that a verdict is rarely equivalent to the truth. Instead it is a result of the evidence obtained and the argumentative skills of those presenting the case. There is no way for you to know the entire truth of the situation and I am not claiming to either. There are two people who knows exactly what happened so I am entitled to my opinion of what the truth in this situation is, as are you.
    I do not believe that you being Aaron Knodel’s friend entitles you to knowing the absolute truth. What I find most interesting about your own dialogue surrounding the case is your continued insistence that yourself and Aaron Knodel have gone to great lengths to protect your students. If your intention has been to protect students I think your own arguments showed how flawed you have been in doing so. In the article that you mentioned my post in, it would appear you are asking your readers to discount victims of sexual abuse. During my time in college I’ve been able to engage in many dialogues surround women’s and gender studies and become educated through my schoolwork and leadership training on sexual assault. For example, I am aware how rare it is for a victim to come forward with false accusations. I’d like to direct you to two interesting articles and studies on the topic. http://www.icdv.idaho.gov/conference/handouts/False-Allegations.pdf http://www.ndaa.org/pdf/the_voice_vol_3_no_1_2009.pdf These also may help you strengthen your own dialogue on the case and use proper sexual assault vocabulary.
    Regardless of my own opinion on the verdict, what is important especially in protecting students is the vocabulary and discussion used around the topic of sexual assault. I’ve learned through my own training that a when a victim does have the courage to come forward you are to stand with that victim. Our judicial system has proven how flawed it is in this subject. I understand that sexual assault is a really touchy subject. Of course no one wants to touch it or believe that it could happen in our town, but history will show that most sexual assaulters never see the inside of a courtroom and even more rarely actually face consequences for their actions. It is extremely important for me as an ally to stand with the women who have been violated in any way. You should gleam from these articles how to talk about accusers of sexual assault even when they are false accusers and what that dialogue means for a community plagued by rape culture. Calling her a liar (which I’ll point out again there is no way for you to completely be sure of) is a blatant neglect of your notion of protecting students. Not only does it severely harm the student in question but closes the space for future victims to come forward, knowing that their educated superiors would be petty enough to call them names without even being directly affiliated with the case.
    I have a hard time believing that the first priority in Aaron Knodel and his accuser’s relationship was protection when the phone calls seems to suggest otherwise. Aaron Knodel is not unintelligent and even I, as a fifteen year old at the time of the supposed relationship, was aware of suicide and other hotlines and the other counseling services through West Fargo High School and the community. How could he spend that many hours on the phone with a student without realizing that he was not fit to handle the situation? He priority must not have been protection, then since the most protective measure would have been to hand the case over to someone more educated on mental health who could properly handle his accuser’s problems.
    If, as you have claimed time and time again, the number one priority is to help students then I would urge you to do two things. Make sure sexual assault is properly implemented into each high school students’ curriculum so that they understand exactly what sexual assault is, how to report it, and how to address and treat someone who has come forward as a sexual assault victim. Also ensure that every teacher is educated properly on how to handle the mental health issues of their students and what resources are best for students so that they are not attempting to handle cases that they aren’t well versed enough in. This case has shown how poorly our community and disappointingly many of our teachers have been educated on the topic of sexual assault and even mental health.
    I would like to take the time to thank both you and Aaron Knodel for your training through mock trial and student congress. Being able to look at the evidence and form my own opinion on this case has shown me how important it is for students to be informed on the judicial system and to understand what that a verdict is not always equivalent to truth. I’m also thankful for my furthered education in helping to understand the privilege associated with this case and the wrongful ways its been discussed and handled.

    1. McKenzie,
      It’s great to hear you pursuing your passion of helping others in areas where they can’t advocate for themselves. I’m always excited to hear of past students moving forward to greater successes. I also appreciate you sharing your opinion, supported by those great articles. We need more fact-based claims brought forward in this discussion. Even though these are going to be future posts here, there are a couple of points you address that I would like to clarify.
      1. I’m sorry if you misunderstood the intent of my post. I would never ask anyone to discount the claims of actual abuse victims. My purpose for beginning this discussion is to raise the issue of that delicate balance between encouraging/supporting victims of abuse, but also acknowledging/punishing the false accusations that can arise. It becomes difficult to discount an individual’s claims as false without being labeled with “victim blaming.” My post focuses on that distinction and your comment verifies how difficult it truly is.
      2. I’m not sure if you have had a chance to review the investigation documentation and court transcripts, but I was directly involved with the case. In fact, I was subpoenaed by the State as a witness. I was involved in the investigation from the day it began. I have witnessed how this investigation was flawed from the beginning. The investigators were never actually seeking to find the truth and the effect of that incompetence is felt throughout the community, which is why I direct focus to the investigative process and not the malicious allegations of the accuser. The injustice that was done to Aaron and his family through this incomplete investigation will be covered in a future post. There were several teachers (including myself) who were named in the accuser’s accusations. The accusations also supposedly took place at times when Aaron was with other people (they all testified in court). I whole-heartedly support your decision to stand by victims of abuse and assault, but claiming I don’t know the truth when it comes to the false criminal complaints against Aaron is also calling myself and several colleagues liars (and indirectly accusing us of perjury).
      3. I’m hoping as you support assault victims, you are seeking out information beyond what has been reported in the media. All information associated with this trial is public. For instance in this case, DNA testing on the “Twilight” book (100+ places – all negative), his current address is listed in police report – not the one he lived at in 2009, handwriting analysis is inconclusive, his wife never left town, the independent investigator did not even charge for his services after uncovering all the facts because he realized the claims were false, other prosecutors refused to charge so BCI had to take it to the Attorney General (same state organization), accuser has never taken a social work course, etc. It seems to me that blindly supporting all women who come forward regardless of any factual foundation does more harm to actual victims than good.
      4. Student communication will also be a topic of another post, but I will let you know I have sent hundreds of texts and have had hundreds of phone calls at all hours of the day/night with students. If that data was erased by the student and they fabricated stories surrounding that communication, I am only one faulty investigation away from having my life and my family’s livelihood put in danger. Administrators and counselors testified at the trial about the issue surrounding the accuser. The procedure that was in place at the time was being followed. It would take a very cold-hearted person to hang up on an individual in need, regardless of gender, but I think many more once-compassionate teachers will start ignoring high-need students because of this case-another topic of a future post.
      5. I completely understand false accusations are rare, but statistics regarding false reporting are not very reliable. It is virtually impossible to prove false reports. And even if false accusations are rare, that means that they still occur. Ignoring the blatant facts and blindly supporting the accuser is your right, but be aware that false accusation caused tremendous harm to Aaron and his family. They also have an adverse effect on the programs trying to assist actual victims of abuse.
      6. Other than the fact that you believe the accuser and you assume Aaron is guilty, I completely agree with you. We need to have procedures in place to guarantee teachers’ and students’ safety. This is the perfect time to begin that discussion and I will be looking for avenues to have that occur during this upcoming school year.
      Again, thank you for the information and dialogue and I wish you the best in your future studies.

  2. […] 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 […]

  3. […] have already written about the delicate position people are in when discussing these false accusations and who should be considered ultimately […]

  4. […] are instances where accusations are untrue. Once accusations are shown to be false, it becomes difficult to address them without being labeled as […]

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