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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

Faith in the system

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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 jpmurphy@west-fargo.k12.nd.us

Walking the delicate line

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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.

On hold…

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I am aware that it has been almost a year since I last posted. It doesn’t quite live up to the goals I established in my first post. However, after my last post in August 2014 an event occured that forever altered my perspective on education. After this event soon concludes, I will have a series of posts reflecting on what has been the most trying year in my career.

Stay tuned…

NDCTE: inspired to inspire

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Last week I had the pleasure of sharing with 120-plus English colleagues from around North Dakota. This annual conference is always inspiring: sharing new ideas, meeting new people and preparing for the upcoming school year. The title of my session? Inspiration Hour. Being an inspirational speaker is not something I’m known for, but I was excited to share some stories that have inspired me through the years.

However, as the conference proceeded into the second day, I came to the realization that my title was not completely accurate. In fact, that title could have been applied to any of the sessions at the conference. It could even work for lunch periods and breaks when teachers are discussing and breaking down what they just learned. My colleagues showed enthusiasm and a genuine desire to improve as a teacher each day. This inspired me.

It’s nothing new. Teachers constantly visiting about best practices and what they are going to try this year. I heard them reflecting on what to change and how they could incorporate new methods or strategies. I heard one say, “I loved Kelly Gallagher. I just stole everything.” Another said, “I want to create that type of environment for my students.” Many other similar statements could be heard in the halls and it renews my spirit for the upcoming year.

I will admit it. I was worn out when graduation day finally arrived last May. After this conference, I’m inspired and excited to get back with my students and my colleagues.

Stay tuned for:
 “The Bottom Line: Compassion”

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.

Starting something new…again

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As I’m beginning my ninth year teaching, I’m realizing that starting something new is, in fact, nothing new. Every year there are new educational initiatives, new technologies, new curriculum and new expectations. We are always starting something new. In some ways it can be frustrating – adapting to new standards, modifying old curriculum and managing new technologies is time consuming and sometimes takes away from why we became teachers – to help students. However, to help prepare students for an ever-changing, 21st Century we have to be constantly willing to start something new.

I ventured into the online world with rambling posts about various topics, starting something out of my comfort zone. Every day I challenge my students to start something – a cultural movement, an unfamiliar act, a kind gesture. I challenge my students to break out of their comfort zones. There’s a great TED Talk from Charlie Todd titled “The Shared Experience of Absurdity.”

I show this video to my students because it’s important for them to understand it’s OK to stretch themselves beyond their limits and test uncomfortable waters. It’s what helps them grow.

I’m also showing this video to 120+ English teachers around the state this weekend at our annual North Dakota Council of Teachers of English conference (sounds exciting, I know). I’ve been assigned a session that is meant to “inspire” teachers. This is definitely out of my comfort zone as I don’t feel quite qualified to inspire anyone. However, as I covered in my last post, I have been inspired. I’m hoping that by sharing those experiences (as well as some videos), teachers will leave the session inspired and refreshed.

It’s hard to know how inspirational I can be for my peers. The important thing is that I accept the challenge in hopes of motivating my students to do the same.

Stay tuned for:
NDCTE presentation recap (7/29/14)

The Tale Behind the Title

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The title of this blog dates back to five years ago this summer. After two years of advising the award-winning Packer newspaper, I was removed from that position. I still retained my role as yearbook adviser and English teacher,  but my passion for education took a big hit that summer. I’m not going to delve into details. Stories about the situation still surface when my students Google my name (which they do quite frequently). They can be found here, here or here…and countless other places. There is no need to rehash the past. The support I received from parents, colleagues and most importantly students still resonates with me today – it was humbling and extremely inspiring.

That’s why I believe the title of this blog fits so well. The demoralizing blow I experienced that summer was softened through the determination and grit my students showed in their supportive approaches. Above everything else, they represented themselves as young professionals, which is how we operated within the publications classroom.

As teachers, we try to prepare students for the next level. We attempt to make learning authentic and give students a glimpse of “real world” applications. My students used their skills, remained strong through adversity and made me extremely proud.

I have since returned to my position as newspaper adviser. I’ll be starting my fourth year after taking those two years off. West Fargo newspaper students have moved their program to an elite level. They have a massive social media following, a successful, popular news website and an award-winning print publication…not to mention the scholarships, awards and accolades.

Students from that summer inspired me to continue in my adviser role. They motivated me to continue to provide an environment where students control the content of their publication. They showed me (and others) what success looks like when it is fostered in an atmosphere that promotes real world, 21st century skills. It isn’t something that shows up on a test or report card. It is the lasting impact on me and the hundreds of students I have worked with since that summer.

And for that, I am eternally grateful.

Stay tuned for:
“Starting Something New…Again” (7/25/14)

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.

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