WEST FARGO -- The lengthy phone conversations West Fargo teacher Aaron Knodel had in 2009 with a student who later claimed their relationship was sexual were part of Knodel's response to a district training program encouraging teachers to act as mentors to students.
That was a key finding in the report West Fargo Superintendent David Flowers forwarded to the North Dakota Education Standards and Practices Board before the licensing board meets Monday to discuss the status of Knodel's teaching license.
Flowers highlighted the role the push for mentoring played in Knodel's relationship with the student at a West Fargo School Board meeting Monday, when the board voted to reinstate the 2014 North Dakota Teacher of the Year and pay him nearly a year's worth of salary withheld while he was on unpaid administrative leave.
The leave was prompted by allegations that led prosecutors to charge Knodel with five felonies. After a five-day trial in April, Knodel was acquitted on three of the charges, and a judge declared a mistrial on the remaining two, which were later dismissed.
The challenge to do more mentoring didn't come up during trial testimony, and the district-which plans to review its policies for contact with students-says it doesn't have any documents outlining the initiative. Other teachers say they were given the same directive, though.
'What you know is best'
Records entered into evidence during the trial showed nearly 100 calls between late 2008 and early 2009 between Knodel and Maggie Wilken, who was then a 17-year-old West Fargo student.
Though The Forum typically doesn't identify accusers in cases of alleged sex crimes, Wilken consented to being identified before she spoke at Monday's board meeting.
Of those phone calls, 23 were after 10 p.m. and six after midnight, including one that lasted four hours. Knodel testified at trial that he talked with Wilken about problems she was having in her personal life. He said she probably got his cellphone number from an information sheet meant for parents of students involved in Student Congress.
Flowers said on Monday the district's investigation showed that while it was an error in judgment that Knodel didn't set limits on his phone contact, it didn't warrant not reinstating him.
"We believe that Mr. Knodel's interactions, including phone calls with the student, were well-intended on his part," Flowers told board members, reading from a written statement.
Flowers said he spoke to former administrators and colleagues about a district- and building-level professional development that was ongoing in 2009, "which challenged teachers to reach out to one or more struggling students."
West Fargo High School teacher Jeremy Murphy, who testified on Knodel's behalf at trial and considers him a friend, said during an in-house training workshop, teachers picked out five students they felt may be struggling or needed additional guidance and discussed strategies for helping the students. Each teacher then chose one student considered to be at risk for dropping out of school to mentor.
"Students weren't aware of this, it was all teachers," Murphy said. "As teachers, at that time, we thought that was just a part of the job. We had always considered ourselves mentors."
High school math teacher Jill Backlund said she chose students to mentor during this time, like most teachers.
"Sort of the whole goal was to reduce our dropout rate, make kids feel connected to the school," she said.
Backlund said she had a lot of contact outside of school with a male student she was mentoring and eventually gave him her cellphone number to stay in touch after he left school for Job Corps, but teachers decided their own boundaries.
"You always just do what you know is best and it will fit," she said.
Along with acting as a mentor to students, Murphy is an adviser for the West Fargo High School yearbook and is a journalism coach. He said students often call or text him when on an assignment or when they need help in the field, which can be late into the night.
"If somebody took my volume of communications and removed the content and context, they could make it look bad," Murphy said.
The professional development at that time was a part of an education philosophy called "The Big Five." One of the philosophy's five tenets is engagement, getting parent and communities involved by making phone calls home and meeting with parents.
A mentoring initiative called "Starfish" grew from that. It encouraged zeroing in on and making contact with students who are at risk of struggling in school or dropping out.
Starfish stressed that teachers should reach out to individual students "so that every student feels like every teacher knows them," said district spokeswoman Heather Konschak. "So students feel cared for and known in their student environment."
Konschak said the district no longer has any written materials from the workshops that were six years ago, and the two staff members that led that particular mentoring philosophy have since left the district.
But Knoshack said mentorship or building relationships with students is not discouraged.
New guidelines coming
Wilken's mother questions whether it was appropriate for Knodel to be a mentor, given he isn't a trained counselor.
"I feel Aaron Knodel over stepped his boundaries," Arlene Wilken said in a statement she read at Monday's board meeting. "As a teacher with no formal counseling training, he squarely put himself in the middle of a situation he was unable to handle appropriately."
Arlene Wilken also pointed out that Knodel's testimony at trial lacked details about what he was talking to her daughter about on the phone. She noted that Knodel never reached out to her about the mentorship.
When Maggie Wilken spoke to the board Monday, she said, "Anyone who knew me before Aaron Knodel decided to 'help this at risk student' would say I was a much happier person and would have been better off without his 'help.' "
Maggie Wilken declined interview requests following the meeting.
As part of the district's investigation by Flowers and two other district officials, they reviewed whether Knodel properly handled any reports of abuse or neglect the student shared with him.
"Mr. Knodel did communicate with a counselor of the nature of some of the issues shared with him by the student," Flowers said in the report.
The district also reviewed the prosecution's investigative file and trial testimony from Wilken, Knodel and his wife. Flowers conducted two interviews with Knodel and spoke with jurors who talked about the perceptions of credibility of evidence and testimony during the trial.
In the district's report sent to the teacher licensing board, Flowers called for a revised ethics code or a new policy that sets out guidelines for interactions between staff and students.
In May, Flowers told The Forum, "It might be interesting to explore whether we should" have a staff and student communication policy, but said he would "hate" to have a policy that would tie teachers' hands.
The Fargo and Moorhead school districts do not have written policies regarding student teacher interactions outside of school.
West Fargo School Board member Dave Olson said Monday the district should form that policy as quickly as possible and include guidelines for social media contact.
Murphy said he and other teachers would welcome more guidelines for student interactions from administration.
Flowers did not give a timeline for when a new policy or revision would be made, but said he would like to work with the state ESPB or North Dakota School Board Association.
ESPB Executive Director Janet Welk said she received Flowers' report on Tuesday. She said the board will take it into consideration, along with information from its own attorney, when it makes a decision on Monday regarding Knodel's license.
Welk said her board is also considering updating its code of ethics, a standard for teachers across the state that has been in place since 1995. A national model of educator ethics was recently released on June 25. The ESPB will also look at the recently updated National Press Club Model Code of Ethics as a guidepost for its own policy.
"We will be looking at that model and comparing it to what we have and seeing if we have to update our own policy," she said. "Of course, ethics means much more than just relationships with students. Teachers make hundreds of ethical decision each day."