Unbalanced investigation threatens all teachers

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

6 responses to “Unbalanced investigation threatens all teachers”

  1. Having been married to an educator and coach for the last 27 years I understand the areas of where teachers can get into trouble. Having seen how times have changed with my children going through school one of the biggest mistakes I see teachers make is becoming the students friend. When the professional line is crossed that leaves them open to accusations. If a student comes to that teacher there are steps that a professional should follow and not include the proper personal so others know what is going on. I also believe that there is no place for a teacher, coach to have cell phone numbers to text students or be facebook friends. It is inappropriate and leaves the teacher once again open to accusations. That is were ethics come into play. While everyone in the state knows this case and her was found not guilty of criminal charges there were ethic lines clearly crossed in my opinion. Young attractive teachers giving attention to yes a student in need does cause mixed feelings in a teen when it all could have been avoided by reporting it to the parents or proper chain of command. It unsettled me that a good teacher put his own career on the line. Yes he’s tried to help/save the student but in the process damaged his career and I can’t imagine the ridicule that former student has to go through for the rest of her life also. Where is common sense this day and age.

    • Tammy,
      Thank you for the comments. I think it is important to differentiate that a strong relationship can exist between a teacher and a student without it being considered a “friendship.” In fact, I think a strong relationship is vital to effectively meeting students’ needs and preparing them for success. I have mentioned this before, but it is sad when teachers have to consider whether to leave “the teacher once again open to accusations” or help a student in need. Also, just to make you aware, the parents were a part of the issue and the counselor was involved in the process (she testified). Thanks for reading and for more on student communication today, check out my next post here.

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