WEST FARGO – Felony charges filed Friday accuse the 2014 North Dakota Teacher of the Year of illegally engaging in a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old student in 2009.
Aaron Knodel, a decorated West Fargo High School English teacher and coach, was charged with five felony counts of corruption or solicitation of a minor stemming from an alleged sexual relationship with a student in February and March 2009, when the student was 17 and Knodel was 29.
Knodel is accused of engaging in sexual acts with his female 17-year-old student in his West Fargo High School classroom, at his home and in her car, according to a report filed with the charges in Cass County District Court.
The student provided the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation with a copy of a “Twilight” book that allegedly contains notes from the teacher that refer to their relationship – notes that a handwriting analyst believes were written by Knodel.
The 35-year-old teacher had been on paid administrative leave since mid-February pending a criminal investigation, as The Forum first reported Sunday.
West Fargo Schools Superintendent David Flowers said in a news conference Friday afternoon that the School Board will consider a recommendation at its Monday meeting to suspend Knodel without pay until the criminal case is resolved. His employment status will be considered after the case is complete, Flowers said.
“Because it is an ongoing investigation, we will have no comment regarding either the alleged victim, nor the specific allegations against Mr. Knodel,” Flowers said, reading from a prepared statement.
The school district has taken the “necessary and appropriate steps” to insure that Knodel has not had contact with students since the original complaint was filed, Flowers said.
Contacted last week by The Forum, Knodel said he had no comment about the investigation.
In a statement released to media Friday, his attorney, Robert Hoy, said he expects a jury will find Knodel not guilty. Hoy also claims that Knodel passed a lie detector test proving his innocence.
“There are always two sides to every story,” the defense attorney said in the written statement.
The student, identified only by her initials in court records, told a BCI agent in an interview on Feb. 12, 2014, that during Christmas break of 2008, her English teacher began sending her text messages expressing his romantic interest.
She told the BCI agent that Knodel insisted he always text her first and that she should then delete the text messages.
She told the agent that over time, the text messages became more personal and sexually suggestive and that he planned to leave his wife for her.
On a Friday night in February 2009, Knodel told the student that his wife would be out of town and “this would be a good time to be alone together,” court records allege the student told the BCI agent.
The student said she visited Knodel at his residence and he performed oral sex on her in his basement while his children were sleeping upstairs, court records allege.
The student told the BCI agent that she and Knodel had sexual contact in his West Fargo High School classroom on five to 10 occasions “before, during, and after school hours.”
The student said on one occasion, Knodel contacted her for a ride because he was too drunk to drive home from TGI Friday’s in Fargo. Another teacher, not named in the BCI report, saw the student driving Knodel home and questioned him about it. Knodel “blew it off” and told the teacher it wasn’t the student, she told the BCI.
The relationship ended when the student broke the rule and texted Knodel, she told the BCI agent. He told the student Knodel’s wife had found the text message and asked if he was having an affair, court records say.
The student told the agent Knodel claimed to his wife that he had an affair, but with a school paraprofessional who was no longer working in the area.
On his 30th birthday, Knodel told the student that the relationship was over, she claims.
Phone records reviewed by the BCI show that from Oct. 10, 2008, through Jan. 1, 2009, there were eight calls between Knodel and the student, with the longest being six minutes.
From Jan. 1, 2009, to March 9, 2009, they exchanged 85 phone calls ranging in length from one minute to four hours, court records allege.
There were no phone calls between Knodel and the 17-year-old after March 9, 2009, the BCI alleges.
The student was unable to obtain text message logs from her cellphone provider.
Knodel faces two Class B felony charges for alleged sexual acts in his classroom and three Class C felony charges for alleged acts that took place at his residence and in the student’s car.
Reigning teacher of year
At a Friday press conference, superintendent Flowers said Knodel has been on administrative leave since Feb. 14, two days after the BCI agent first interviewed the student.
“Final determination regarding his employment status will be subject to the outcome of the investigation and/or the court system,” Flowers said in a written statement.
West Fargo Police Chief Mike Reitan said at the press conference the complaint was first made to his department, but the case was referred to the BCI because of Knodel’s relationship with the West Fargo Police Department’s investigators.
Friday’s news conference lasted about five minutes and neither Reitan nor Flowers took questions.
From its start to Friday‘s filing of charges, the investigation lasted six months. However, the report filed with the charges was dated May 19.
Hoy, the defense attorney, questioned the timing of the investigation and charges, noting they are recent recollections of events from more than five years ago.
“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,” he said in a statement.
Hoy asked that potential jurors keep an “open mind” and noted the difference in the level of proof required for filing charges versus that needed for a conviction – “probable cause” for charges and “beyond a reasonable doubt” at trial.
Knodel is the reigning state teacher of the year and coach of the school’s speech and debate teams, Congress and History Bee.
After being named teacher of the year, Knodel was praised by Gov. Jack Dalrymple and State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Kirsten Baesler.
“Aaron exemplifies North Dakota’s outstanding teachers who are dedicated to education excellence and to helping our young people achieve their full potential,” Dalrymple said in a statement dated Sept. 20, 2013.
In a statement at the time, Knodel said he was “honored and humbled” to be named teacher of the year.
“What makes me passionate about my job every day is the simple fact that the interactions I have with my students and the interactions they have with each other have the potential, on any given day, to significantly impact their lives,” Knodel said. “I have seen it, and I know the magic of those moments. The rewards of teaching are these moments.”
A spokesperson for Gov. Jack Dalrymple’s office could not be reached Friday. Dale Wetzel, a spokesman for the Department of Public Instruction, declined to comment on the charges.
Knodel, a Beulah native, has been a teacher at West Fargo High School since 2004, teaching senior English, advanced placement language and composition, debate and argumentation, and the fundamentals of public speaking. Before that, he worked at Shanley High School.
Knodel also has served as an adjunct professor at both North Dakota State University and the North Dakota State College of Science. Spokesmen for both schools said Knodel was not on the roster for the 2014-2015 school year.
Hoy said in his statement that “many friends, fellow teachers, and former students” remain supportive of Knodel, who he said “has been a positive influence in the lives of hundreds of students.”
“As you can imagine, being charged with a crime is a devastating experience which will impact him and his family forever,” he said.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518 and Adrian Glass-Moore at (701) 241-5599