WEST FARGO - The West Fargo School Board voted unanimously Monday to reinstate Aaron Knodel over the objections of the former student who accused him of having an illegal sexual relationship with her in 2009.
The 2014 North Dakota Teacher of the Year will also be paid back the nearly full year of salary that was suspended since last August when he was charged with five felony counts of corruption or solicitation of a minor.
Knodel’s annual salary in 2014, with coaching and advising included, was $57,651.
See previous Aaron Knodel coverage here
Superintendent David Flowers told the roughly 50 members of the standing-room-only audience that the district considers Knodel, 36, exonerated of any criminal charges against him.
In June, Knodel was acquitted of three of the five charges against him, and a Cass County District Court judge agreed to state prosecutor’s request to dismiss the remaining two charges.
Before the seven School Board members voted Monday, his accuser, Maggie Wilken, pleaded with them to keep Knodel out of the classroom.
"I stand here today urging you not to reinstate Aaron Knodel," said Wilken, 24, who agreed to The Forum identifying her. "I won’t waste the board's or my own time by trying to make you believe that there was a sexual relationship between him and me."
The Forum typically does not identify possible victims of alleged sex-related crimes.
“It’s made my life extremely difficult and at times a struggle to move forward," Wilken said.
While Flowers recommended Knodel be given a position in the district during the 2015-16 school year, he said it has not yet been decided if that position will be as a teacher.
“That’s something we’ll talk to Aaron about,” Flowers said.
Board member Shauna Vistad said some parents have asked if she would want her children to be a student of Knodel and she “absolutely” would.
“In fact I’m hoping my son will have the opportunity to have Knodel as a teacher,” said Vistad, who is neighbors with Knodel.
Attorney, Mike Geiermann, who is representing Knodel on behalf of the teachers union, North Dakota United, said Monday that Knodel wants to return to the classroom.
“I’m assuming tomorrow morning Aaron will start looking at his materials to get ready for school,” Geiermann said.
The North Dakota Education Standards and Practices Board meets Monday in Bismarck to discuss the status of his license and if Knodel violated any ethical standards, said Janet Welk, executive director of the ESPB. The board has taken no other action on Knodel’s license.
Flowers said he will forward the results of his investigation to the state board.
Geiermann said he expects the licensing board to follow West Fargo’s lead and not take any action on Knodel’s license.
“Local school boards are in a really good position to make these kinds of decisions in regards to the kind of people they want teaching in their districts,” Geiermann said.
Flowers said he and two administrators conducted an “extensive” investigation that looked at whether or not Knodel violated ethics or conduct codes.
One piece of evidence prosecutors presented during trial included cellphone call logs that showed nearly 100 calls between Wilken and Knodel.
“We believe that Mr. Knodel’s interactions, including phone calls with the student, were well intended on his part,” Flowers said Monday as part of a prepared statement.
Flowers said that the contact with Wilken was Knodel’s attempt to fulfill a challenge of professional development set up by the school at that time, which asked teachers to reach out to and mentor struggling students.
“Even though he expressed to us that he had been somewhat frustrated with the amount of time and energy he was devoting to his mentee, he had failed to set limits on when and for how long phone calls would be acceptable,” Flowers said Monday. “Though this was an error in professional judgement, it does not rise to the level of an adverse consequence relative to his employment or licensure in our opinion. It is a learning opportunity for the district and for the profession as well.”
Wilken’s mother, Arlene Wilken, told the board Monday that Knodel had acted unprofessionally by not contacting her about problems with her daughter.
Another West Fargo Parent, Nicole Lo, told the board Monday not to reinstate Knodel, saying members should consider if it was safe for students to be in his classroom.
“Maybe he won't do it again, but maybe he will,” she said.
Knodel, who sat with his wife, Marie, near the board table, remained stoic as the board took roll call Monday.
Wilken sat in the audience with her mother and brother. She declined to comment after the meeting.
The Knodels left the boardroom through a side door after the decision was made.
Geiermann said the board’s decision means his client will get his “life back,” and Knodel would like to return to teaching as soon as possible.
Before voting, School Board members said the case will prove to be a learning opportunity for the district, which should consider policies to handle a similar situation in the future.
“In today’s social media, the way things can get around, it’s difficult for staff and students,” board member Dave Olson said. “I think we are behind the curve as a state and a district. I think something has to change, and quickly.”
For Wilken, the past year and her accusation of a relationship with Knodel resulted in “severe depression” and public ridicule, she said.
“Because of society’s unsupportive point of view, I’ve victim-blamed myself,” she said.
Wilken said she had been criticized for not “crying enough during the trial.”
“The truth is, if I had allowed myself to be vulnerable during that time, I would not have gotten through it,” she said. “I detach as a way of protecting myself.”
Wilken said during the trial that she came forward in 2014 with her accusations about Knodel because she had started attending college to become a counselor and realized she would be required to report cases of sexual misconduct, so she wanted to report her own situation first.
Monday, she said she has lost 2½ years of education because she has been unable to focus on anything else.