North Dakota Teacher of Year under criminal investigation
WEST FARGO – The 2014 North Dakota Teacher of the Year has been on paid administrative leave for a half-year while he’s being investigated for a possible crime.
Aaron Knodel, a decorated West Fargo High School English teacher and coach, has been under criminal investigation since at least Feb. 21, according to West Fargo School District memos The Forum obtained through an open records request.
The nature of the investigation is not documented in the memos, and no charges have been filed against Knodel in a North Dakota or Minnesota court.
When contacted by phone last week, Knodel declined comment on the matter.
West Fargo Schools Superintendent David Flowers wrote to School Board members on Feb. 21 to tell them an investigator had informed him a teacher was being investigated for a possible crime.
Because The Forum’s records request specifically asked for records pertaining to Knodel, Flowers said that memo and subsequent board updates on that issue fell under the open records request.
West Fargo Police Chief Michael Reitan confirmed that a case involving a West Fargo schools staff member had been forwarded to the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation.
Citing an open investigation, Reitan declined to discuss the nature of the case or the staff member’s role in it.
Asked by The Forum why West Fargo Police would forward a case to the state BCI, Reitan mentioned three possible scenarios:
1) A real or perceived conflict of interest within the local department.
2) If a case includes other possible jurisdictions.
3) If a case requires advanced resources the local department does not have.
Liz Brocker, a spokeswoman for the BCI, said “(The BCI) doesn’t provide information about investigations or confirm whether or not we are investigating.”
District in limbo
Knodel’s open case and long absence from West Fargo High School has created a conundrum for the district with school starting Aug. 25.
The reigning state teacher of the year, coach of the school’s speech and debate teams and advisor to Student Congress and Trivia Team has been absent from the school since at least Feb. 19, according to records showing substitute teachers placed in his room through school year’s end.
Flowers said last week the district will soon need to decide if Knodel can return to school this fall.
In The Forum’s records request, which asked for correspondence within the district concerning Knodel dating back to Jan. 1, the district received no formal complaints about Knodel, and Flowers said the district has no open investigation on the matter.
Flowers notified West Fargo School Board members on Feb. 21 that “an investigation into a certified staff member who we have placed on administrative leave is ongoing.”
On Feb. 28, in an update to board members, Flowers wrote, “a school district employee under investigation for possible criminal conduct remains on administrative leave.” He said an investigator had contacted him, and it appeared there may be some conclusion to the investigation within a week.
But the latest written update from Flowers dated June 17 said there was no new information about the investigation.
Last week, Flowers told The Forum he still had not heard of any change in the ongoing investigation.
“I keep hearing something may happen soon, but nothing does,” Flowers said. “This has been going on for six months.”
A decorated teacher
Knodel 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.
Last September, Knodel was named 2014 North Dakota Teacher of the Year. Before that, he was named West Fargo Public School District Teacher of the Year and West Fargo High School Teacher of the Year.
His 2014 salary, with coaching and advising included, was $57,651.
Before coming to West Fargo, the Beulah High School graduate spent time teaching at Shanley High School, where he also coached debate.
In January, Knodel was named as a “diamond coach” by the National Forensic League, a speech and debate honor society. The diamond award recognizes excellent performance and longevity for coaches of debate.
In June, he was to be recognized at the National Forensic League National Speech & Debate Tournament in Overland Park, Kan.
At ratemyteachers.com, an online forum where students can comment publicly about teachers, Knodel received high compliments from students. One even likened him to Jesus.
“Aaron Knodel is probably the best teacher I’ve ever had. I owe a great deal of my success in college to him and the success I will have in my future,” one review said. “He really cares about his students and will go out of his way to help them, not only with just education. I wouldn’t be who I am today without having him as an instructor.”