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 firstname.lastname@example.org