WEST FARGO – Fellow teachers are putting money behind their support of 2014 North Dakota Teacher of the Year Aaron Knodel.
A group of Knodel's colleagues recently started a fund to help with the West Fargo English teacher's mounting legal fees as he faces a second trial on two of five felony charges accusing him of having sexual contact with a 17-year-old student. Knodel was acquitted of three charges on June 4, but faces a second trial this this month after a Cass County District Court judge declared a mistrial on the two charges.
After a private online site gathered about $1,000, the "Knodel Family Benefit" fund was set up at Gate City Bank where the public couold donate. A public GoFundMe online site for Knodel will also go live.
Lisa K. Dullum, West Fargo Education Association president and elementary music specialist at Freedom Elementary, will administer the public site.
Dullum, who has taught Knodel's children and considers him a friend, said her help with the online site is not affiliated with her position with the union. She said the local union does not assist in costs associated with criminal case while litigation is ongoing.
"Friends and colleagues, people really support him and are on his side and that's where I stand," she said.
Knodel was placed on paid administrative leave in February 2014 while an investigation into the allegations he had sex with a former student was underway by the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation. After he was charged Aug. 22 with five counts of felony corruption or solicitation of a minor, the West Fargo district suspended the highly decorated teacher and academic coach without pay or benefits on Aug. 25. The North Dakota teacher licensing board has taken no action on Knodel's license.
West Fargo Attorney Robert Hoy is representing Knodel and the bill is inching toward $250,000, said Jill Backlund, a teacher who worked with Knodel at Fargo Shanley and West Fargo high schools.
"And that's before a second trial," she said. "I was so shocked to hear the amount."
Jeremy Murphy, a West Fargo High School journalism teacher and Knodel's close friend who testified on his behalf during the first trial, said the state union also won't assist with Knodel's legal fees, but the National Education Association will cover up to $30,000.
"I don't think a lot of people knew that the union wasn't covering his legal fees," Murphy said. "So, it's been 16 months, nine months of the last school year that he has been without a paycheck."
Knodel's parents, both former teachers, have contributed to their son's defense by using retirement savings, Backlund said. "That just breaks my heart."
Backlund expects other teachers and educators to continue to rally behind Knodel and donate to the fund.
"As teachers, it was our understanding that that was why we paid our fees to be a member of the union," she said. "Every teacher in this city feels on-guard because it could be any one of us."
Knodel, 36, was charged with three Class C felony counts of corruption or solicitation of a minor and two Class B felony counts of corruption of a minor, all linked to alleged sexual contact with the student.
Last week, Cass County District Judge Steven McCullough upheld a jury's three not-guilty verdicts after the five day trial. McCullough said the 12-person jury found Knodel not guilty of one of the lesser charges April 27, the same day jurors started deliberating the case, while not guilty verdicts were reached on the Class B charges on April 28, a day before a female juror was hospitalized.
The female juror told Cass County sheriff's deputies at the hospital that she was the lone holdout for a unanimous not guilty verdict on two of the counts. She also allegedly told deputies she did not disclose during jury selection that she was a victim of sexual abuse.
Knodel's supporters, including many West Fargo teachers and staff, wrote to the North Dakota Attorney General's Office in May urging prosecutors to dismiss the charges.