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Written rules lacking for teacher-student communication

WEST FARGO-There are no policies in place in the Fargo and West Fargo public school districts to address when it is appropriate for teachers to communicate with students outside of the classroom, though Moorhead School District has some policies ...

Former West Fargo High School teacher Aaron Knodel takes the stand in his own trial Friday, April 24, 2015, in Cass County District Court, Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

WEST FARGO-There are no policies in place in the Fargo and West Fargo public school districts to address when it is appropriate for teachers to communicate with students outside of the classroom, though Moorhead School District has some policies on electronic communication and social media meant to deal with such situations.

See more Knodel trial coverage here

Teacher handbooks and policies in the metro may end up being rewritten, as administrators and school board members look to guide employees away from legal trouble.

The most recent local cautionary example is Aaron Knodel.

The West Fargo English teacher went on trial with jury selection on April 21, charged with five felonies for allegedly having sex with a 17-year-old student in 2009. Legal proceedings for the 2014 North Dakota Teacher of the Year could drag on longer due to circumstances Wednesday that may lead to a mistrial.


As part of testimony in the trial, prosecutors presented evidence of 93 calls between Knodel and the student in late 2008 and early 2009. An analyst found five calls between 60 and 120 minutes long, and three calls that were more than 120 minutes long. The analyst found 23 calls between the student and Knodel after 10 p.m. and six after midnight, including one 240-minute call. Knodel testified he talked with the student on the phone about problems she was having in her personal life.

In the Fargo-Moorhead area's three largest school districts, direction on staff communications with students comes in informal conversations with supervisors, officials said.

"It might be interesting to explore whether we should" have a staff and student communication policy, Superintendent David Flowers said.

Flowers said there are times when it's perfectly legitimate for a teacher to communicate with students outside of the school day, such as for homework help, or to cancel an event. He said he may look at other districts' policies.

"I'd hate to see us have a policy that would tie coaches' or teachers' hands." Flowers said.

Jeff Schatz, Fargo superintendent of schools, said his district has policies for using new technologies, but those policies may have to be updated.

"With the vast amount of different modes of communication, those types of policies are probably forthright and coming," he said.

Schatz said it is an area that may be addressed in coming months. In the meantime, it's best to keep teacher-student relationships focused on academics or sports, he said.


"Any kind of communication, whether it is through email or phone, or whatever it might be, should directly be related to schoolwork and directly related to anything going on within the course that a teacher might be teaching," he said.

Schatz said if students need to be counseled on issues beyond the classroom or playing field, teachers and coaches should bring in trained counselors..

If Schatz wants to create a policy, he has School Board President Robin Nelson's backing.

"We must adopt some policies that establish some boundaries between teachers and students, for the protection of everybody in the system," Nelson said. "We need to make that step, sometime very soon."

At Moorhead High School, Principal Dave Lawrence said he makes a conversation on setting boundaries between teachers and students part of the start of the school year..

"You're not friends." Lawrence said. "You're an adult and you're professional."

But the Moorhead School District has no plans to create a policy specifically for student and staff interactions, Director of Human Resources Kristin Dehmer wrote in an email. She said the district has policies on the use of electronics and social media.

"All electronic or any other communications by employees to students at any time are expected to be professional, acceptable in content to any reasonable person, and limited to information that is school-related or is acceptable to both student and parent," according to Moorhead's electronic communications policy.


"The line between professional and personal relationships is blurred within a social media context," the social media policy reads. "Educational employees have a responsibility to maintain appropriate employee-student relationships, whether on or off duty."

Perhaps the most straightforward rules for teachers in North Dakota and Minnesota can be found in North Dakota's Code of Professional Conduct for Educators.

It calls upon teachers to "protect the student from conditions detrimental to learning or to physiological or psychological well-being," and that teachers "shall not engage in physical abuse of a student or sexual conduct with a student."

Helmut Schmidt is a reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead's business news team. Readers can reach him by email at hschmidt@forumcomm.com, or by calling (701) 241-5583.
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