WEST FARGO, N.D. – A union-selected 2014 North Dakota Teacher of the Year faces criminal charges for allegedly having a sexual relationship with a student five years ago.
West Fargo High School English teacher Aaron Knodel is scheduled to be arraigned on Sept. 5 on charges of corruption or solicitation of a minor, though school and police officials are keeping most of the details of the case from the public, the Associated Press reports.
Knodel was charged Friday with five felonies stemming from several incidents that allegedly occurred between February and March of 2009 involving a 17-year-old student. Two incidents allegedly took place in a school classroom, two others at the teacher’s home, and a fifth incident in the victim’s car, according to the news service.
Knodel’s attorney, Robert Hoy, adamantly denied any wrongdoing by his client, and said Knodel has passed a lie-detector test regarding the allegations.
“I don’t know why such allegations would arise now, but the passage of time makes it much more difficult for Aaron to defend himself,” Hoy said. “So, until we can have an opportunity to present this case to a jury, I ask that prospective jurors keep an open mind and reserve judgment, despite the salacious allegations that have been made.
“There are always two sides to every story,” he said.
School officials told the AP they put Knodel on paid administrative leave the moment they were informed about the teacher’s alleged behavior Feb. 14. West Fargo Superintendent David Flowers told the AP he is proposing to put the teacher on unpaid suspension until the case is resolved, the AP reports.
“The school district has taken necessary and appropriate steps to insure that Mr. Knodel has not had contact with students through his role as a teacher in the school district since the original complaint was filed,” Flowers said.
The case was turned over to the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation because Knodel has a history with detectives in the West Fargo police department. The teacher served as a lead negotiator for the local West Fargo Education Association union. He was named the 2014 North Dakota Teacher of the Year by the state teachers union, North Dakota United for his work starting a student congress and trivia team at West Fargo High School, according to the AP.
Knodel also coached student speech and debate teams at the school.
Hoy told the AP that Knodel is a great husband and high school teacher whose life is turned upside-down by the allegations, “which will impact him and his family forever.”
But that seems like a small price to pay to ensure students are free from sexual abuse by district educators. Regardless of his teaching ability, public schools must take these types of accusations seriously, as similar cases are becoming an epidemic across the United States.
The New York Daily News reports two different past teacher of the year award winners in Georgia have faced similar allegations of sexually abusing students. In 2012, New Jersey’s 2011 Teacher of the Year was also arrested for having a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old student, according to the Huffington Post.
The most recent research shows as many as one in ten students is sexually abused by a teacher during some time in their K-12 education. Earlier this month, Pennsylvania state Sen. Pat Toomey again highlighted the number of such cases so far this year: 275 teachers have been arrested in the U.S. for sexual misconduct with children since January 1.
That’s more than one per day.
Toomey and other federal lawmakers are working to pass legislation that would crack down on the student abuse by forcing all school employees and contractors to pass federal background checks. The legislation, which has stagnated in a Senate committee, would also prohibit the practice of “passing the trash,” in which school and union officials negotiate agreements that allow accused educators to resign with a letter of recommendation.
The proposed federal law, however, has met objections from the nation’s largest teachers unions, which believe protecting children is less important than protecting the “rights” of pedophile teachers.