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Reflection on school board decision

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I believe in justice. Ever since I was little, I have always rooted for justice. It provides me with a sense of peace knowing justice has been served. Not only that, but when I see injustice it burns deep and affects all areas of my life.

In my 10-year career and even before as a professional journalist, I have seen and experienced injustice. I was unfairly removed as newspaper adviser in 2009, seen a coach removed from a long-held position with little explanation, seen the teacher’s union avoid involvement in a member’s nightmare and witnessed questionable decisions pass over administrative desks, just to name a few.

After the July 27th meeting where the WFPS School Board reinstated Aaron Knodel with back pay, I have never been more proud to be a member of the WFPS district. District officials took matters into their own hands and conducted a thorough investigation.The list of documents and interviews reviewed by district personnel was impressive. Completing their due diligence allowed them to see all aspects of this unfortunate situation and come to the correct conclusion.

This is the second thorough investigation that has been conducted regarding the information from this case. The first investigation was conducted by Chuck Anderson, a private investigator with more than 30 years of experience. He interviewed more than 30 individuals (BCI agent Mike Ness interviewed 12) and after the investigation decided to not even charge for his services. This is an excerpt from a letter he submitted to Dr. Flowers:

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State officials who pursued these criminal complaints received a strong message from the district’s decision. After two independent investigations reviewed the information related to this case, it should be more clear than ever that the state acted inappropriately. The incomplete investigation and lack of substantial evidence should never have led to five criminal complaints.

It is time the public starts asking the same questions jurors asked after the completion of the trial. One juror even questioned on the Joel Heitkamp Show how the state could put somebody through this with what they had and another juror on the Sandy Buttweiler Show noticed several discrepencies throughout the trial. It’s sad these issues are not being addressed by state officials.

The public response to the district’s decision was as expected. From online discussion threads, it seemed as though the majority of opinions were favorable. What surprises me is public opinion has swayed from the original discussion of criminal charges. Even my former students, who I would have hoped through my courses have learned to evaluate information in its entirety before reaching conclusions, have responded with negative and threatening comments toward myself and my family (the topic of my next and final post on the experiences of this past year). Even local radio hosts have noticed how public opinion has shifted, but people are still missing the fact that the original charges were brought forward by state officials in a damaging and irresponsible manner.

The public comments that are not favorable toward the district decision do not even reference the original investigation or complaints. They are mainly focused on student communication, which has already been addressed. It is disheartening to see the majority of people ignore the original complaints because they are focused on communication times and volume. I have already explained how this isn’t uncommon and Superintendent Dr. David Flowers mentioned the district mentoring initiative at the meeting. It is sad to see non-teachers struggle with this concept and ignore the larger issue: how five separate criminal complaints could be filed with no compelling evidence.

People are ignoring the fact that these communication statistics were taken out of context and combined with other faulty investigative methods to legitimize the criminal complaints. Those complaints cost a well-respected teacher his reputation and state taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Byers spared no expense during the trial process, even flying a private jet to Fargo for a deposition. In addition, BCI Agent Mike Ness enjoyed spending taxpayer dollars when he tested the “Twilight” book for DNA in more than a hundred places (listen at 30-minute mark here), only to have all results return as negative – proving definitively that Aaron never touched the book or sticky notes he supposedly wrote and yet state officials still proceeded with that evidence accompanied with the five charges. It is time these individuals are held accountable for their actions. It has been documented that BCI agents operate with some immunity and after this series of events it’s easy to see it is time for a change.

The WFPS district officials made a strong statement to state officials Monday night and restored my faith in justice. It’s time the public turns the focus on the main issue. It is obvious from various dialogues that we hold teachers to the highest possible standard; we should expect no less from our state officials.

Stay tuned for:  “The most disheartening fact” 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

Communicating with students today

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The annual North Dakota Council of Teachers of English conference in Mandan this week provided ND English teachers the opportunity to collaborate and reflect on their profession. One of the sessions involved discussing a Young Adult Literature text in small groups. The book, Period 8 by Chris Crutcher, is popular among young readers. It provided teachers a unique discussion about possible teaching strategies and literary strengths/weaknesses.

The novel centers around a group of high school students who attend a voluntary open period during their lunch hour, which is called period 8. This group is led by Mr. Logsdon, a teacher at the end of his career who develops strong, open relationships with each student in his room. His rapport with students is so strong that he works out with them, texts them, calls them and they feel comfortable stopping by his house at random hours when they are distressed. He plays a vital role in helping students find safety from destructive environments.

It is this behavior that led discussion participants to decide whether or not Logsdon is an effective teacher. Everyone agreed that his strong relationships with students made him a great teacher. In fact, one ND English teacher explained that the most effective teachers are those who have strong student relationships. West Fargo officials also recognized this during the 2008-2010 school years and encouraged “Relationships” as one of the BIG 5 components to the staff’s educational philosophy.

Recently, the process of developing and maintaining strong student relationships has come into question. With the recent false accusations against Aaron Knodel that led to a faulty investigation, five criminal complaints, a trial and possible reinstatement, the discussion of student communication remains the focal point.

The WFPS School Board and Superintendent Dr. David Flowers emphasized this in his statement July 13th. He said, “Our focus is on questions of behavior and judgement, and whether any ethical lines were crossed that would cause us concern or influence recommendations regarding Mr. Knodel’s employment in the district.” The fact that Aaron was exonerated from the false accusations will play no role in his reinstatement. Officials are evaluating his communication with a student and whether “ethical lines were crossed.” The only statistics available from this communication is the number of calls/texts sent and received and the communication time. The final district decision is on the agenda for the July 27th board meeting and my next post will reflect on that decision.

As a teacher and a co-curricular coach, the concept of evaluating ethical boundaries based on communication volume and communication times is deeply concerning. I have hundreds of communications with various students through various media (texting, voice calls, Snapchat, Twitter) each school year.

Here are a few text conversations I have had with students the past few months:

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This conversation refers to the day we were taking our group photos. I could not attend school due to illness. Notice the candid language used by this student.

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Here is another text conversation from the national journalism convention trip last spring in Denver. I require students to text me back immediately so I’m constantly aware of their whereabouts. The two eating location requests were accompanied by several phone calls so I could check on the student.

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This text conversation was last month during yearbook camp. Students had an 11 p.m. curfew, but chose to stay up in their rooms and work on their yearbook projects. I offered assistance via text messages. Notice the times of these texts. This assistance continued for another half an hour.

If an outsider evaluated my communication volume and time period without content, the perception of my communication could be skewed if accompanied with false accusations. Even as Aaron was exonerated from the criminal complaints, the public remained focused on the volume and time periods of communication discussed during the trial process.

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These comments concern me because of the role today’s teacher plays in a student’s life. Effective teachers no longer limit communication to classroom direct instruction. Understanding the various methods for extending instruction beyond the classroom differs between digital immigrants and digital natives. This article suggests that the former struggles understanding the communication methods of the latter. (Sidenote: The article also discusses how companies are creating a CXO – Chief Experience Officer, to guide customers’ experiences. A perfect example of how teachers need to prepare students for positions that do not currently exist) Properly preparing students for success is nearly impossible without expanding learning and communication beyond the classroom walls.

The agents at the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation simply focused on times and call volume without the content. (Sidenote: former Towner County Sheriff Vaughn Klier said BCI agents “…think they’re above the law.”) BCI agents used the communication volume statistics, in addition to the misinterpreted colleague comments and the unqualified hand writing analysis, to make the accusations against Aaron seem legitimate. Now that those accusations have been proven false, the fact that district officials and public perception see a specific volume and time frame of student communication as possibly unethical without knowing the content concerns me.

As a dedicated, passionate educator who wants to give students every opportunity to find success, it is difficult for me to see perception skewed over the volume and time of student communication. It seems as though teachers might have to choose between assisting students, who are digital natives, through various modes of communication or maintaining strict communication policies, possibly weakening student rapport and losing effectiveness along the way. That is a sad reality.

Stay tuned for:  “Reflection regarding WFPS board decision” 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

Unbalanced investigation threatens all teachers

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It was not until this last year that I realized teachers’ careers are more vulnerable than ever. We are placed in a position to help students develop in a variety of areas: academically, socially, physically and mentally. The best teachers set clear expectations in all of these areas and push students to reach those standards. When students slip in any of the areas, teachers feel it is their responsibility to provide students with the scaffolding and support to help them reach success.

In August 2014, this philosophy on supporting students was shaken. Five felony charges were filed against my colleague Aaron Knodel, from which he has since been exonerated. Tonight, West Fargo Superintendent Dr. David Flowers said the district accepts that Aaron is exonerated, but they will evaluate whether “any ethical lines were crossed” before he is reinstated. This comment strongly relates to my next post about student communication and the roles teachers have in today’s classroom, but it also shows teaching is not a safe job. After false accusations lead to a nightmare 17-months for a highly decorated teacher/coach, the fact that he was acquitted does not even factor into his reinstatement. This should concern all North Dakota teachers.

I have already written about the delicate position people are in when discussing these false accusations and who should be considered ultimately responsible for filing them. Understanding the vulnerability of the teaching position makes completing daily responsibilities a struggle for a dedicated, compassionate teacher. In college, professors address proper ways to avoid any possibility of issues when it comes to working with students. They address using the counselors for support, telling a colleague, leaving a door open, keeping accurate records, etc. However, even with these precautions, nothing can protect a person from an unethical investigation.

The methods used by the Bureau of Criminal Investigation and special agent Mike Ness forces all teachers to reconsider how much they will help struggling students. No teacher is safe. The only other colleague who was interviewed by BCI agent Ness in March 2014 was asked questions regarding the allegations that Aaron received a ride from the accuser and “blew him off” when he asked about it. The colleague said it did not occur and he would have reported it if it had occurred. In the actual police report, it doesn’t state the colleague’s name but says he “saw the student driving Knodel home and questioned him about it.” These two statements are drastically different. This discrepancy threatens all teachers. Even with the greatest of precautions, there is no hope for teachers when an investigator ignores fellow colleagues’ accounts of a situation.

Ness used this “eye witness account” and coupled it with handwriting analysis from his BCI colleague Troy Kelly to make it appear like his charges were legitimate. Kelly took a 27-hour online course that has this description: “These lessons do not cover all the details with which a QUESTIONED DOCUMENT Examiner must be thoroughly familiar before he/she can be considered an Expert and be allowed to give Expert Testimony in a Court of Law.”

A professional handwriting analyst for 34 years, Janis Seedstrom Tweedy said “I can state unequivocally that Special Agent Troy Kelly has insufficient education, training and experience to be recognized within the QDE community as a competent expert Questioned Document Examiner”. Kelly’s experience is compared to “…reading law books for 5 days, instead of 3 years of law school, and purporting to have the knowledge and skill necessary to represent clients as an attorney.” The unethical methods used by Ness to create five separate criminal complaints against Aaron should alarm teachers across the state.

The fact that false accusations can lead to charges is scary enough, but there is also a large probability of going to trial. Jeff Bredahl, a defense attorney for Bredahl and Associates in Fargo, pointed out on a morning radio program that “weak cases” are more likely to extend all the way through the trial process. So not only should teachers be concerned that false accusations could lead to charges, but that it would be likely to continue all the way to trial. The negative publicity and cost of this process is damaging enough, but as WFPS School Board members showed tonight, not even being exonerated from a “weak case” will allow a teacher to possibly remain employed.

All methods college professors describe to “protect” a teacher from false accusations are not enough. There is no strategy that can protect a compassionate, dedicated teacher against an investigator who ignores the truth.

Stay tuned for:  “Communicating with students today” 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