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Despite best efforts, sometimes the teacher-student relationship is abused by those in power

GRAND FORKS — Not here.

That would never happen here. Not in Grand Forks. Not in our schools.

That’s what people want to believe, even though recent history says there’s no reason why it couldn’t happen anywhere.

North Dakota has seen its share of high-profile cases involving a teacher accused of having at least some sexual contact with a student.

Since 2011, there have been at least five cases when a teacher’s license has been revoked by the state of North Dakota for having an inappropriate relationship of a sexual nature with a student. In other cases there have been allegations that, while not proven in court, left lingering doubts and broken lives.

West Fargo teacher Aaron Knodel, who had been named the 2014 North Dakota Teacher of the Year, was charged with five counts of felony corruption or solicitation of a minor for allegedly having sex with one of his students in 2009. The accusations came after Knodel received the award and last year a judge declared a mistrial in the case. Knodel kept his license and resumed teaching in West Fargo.

In all of the state’s teacher license revocations dating back to 1974, at least 42 of 74 instances were sexual in nature — 57 percent. Of those, 38 were male teachers.

And according to felony charges filed last week, a teacher in Grand Forks has crossed the line between teacher and student when Central High School teacher James Patrick Whalen engaged in a sexual relationship with a minor student.

The 41-year-old Grand Forks man, who faces two counts of solicitation of a minor, has not been convicted, but could receive up to 15 years in prison if found guilty.

The number of license revocations for Minnesota teachers wasn’t available, but in the past few years, there have been a number of cases with similar allegations of inappropriate teacher-student relationships.

Like Whalen, charges were filed Tuesday against Tara Michelle Nichols, a former substitute teacher for the Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton School District, just east of Moorhead, Minn., for allegations she had sex with a student.

Nichols, 39, of Glyndon faces two counts of third-degree criminal sexual conduct for engaging in sex with a student who was 17 at the time of the alleged conduct. A parent told authorities her son received inappropriate messages and pictures from Nichols, who was a substitute teacher at the time.

Documents filed in Clay County District Court state an investigation revealed several male students, ages 17 and 18, had either received messages from Nichols or had sexual contact with her.

Since 2013, there have been allegations against teachers for sexual contact with students from both states — stretching from Bemidji and Willmar in Minnesota to Bismarck, Mandan, Bottineau and Park River in North Dakota

In the wake of the allegations against Whalen, Grand Forks area educators and administrators have stressed such cases are rare here and that there are procedures and training in place to prevent a misuse of the power of a teacher-student relationship and the power differential between them.

Avoiding the worst

After the allegations came to light, educators explained exactly what they do to not only prevent abuse, but to empower teachers to be professional role models.

Grand Forks Public Schools human resources manager Tracy Abentroth said every employee is aware of the sexual harassment policy within the district.

“All employees receive the sexual harassment policy, along with other policies, when they are hired,” Abentroth said, and all employees are required to sign that they have reviewed them.

According to the district’s sexual harassment policy, any report of sexual harassment, whether it is between a teacher and a student, a teacher and a teacher, or a student and a student, must be sent to the human resources officer by the principal immediately. Failure to do so will result in disciplinary action.

The district cannot comment on the charges against Whalen, as it is an ongoing investigation, but Abentroth said according to policy, when a police investigation begins it takes precedence over any internal investigation.

“It’s happened,” she said.

Whalen submitted a one-sentence resignation Tuesday stating “I hereby resign my teaching position with Grand Forks School District effective immediately.”

At the University of North Dakota College of Education and Human Development, from which Whalen graduated before starting at Central High School in 1998, professionalism is of the utmost importance, according to administrators.

Anne Walker, associate dean for teacher education and student services, said the college graduates about 130 new teachers each year and every one of them is trained to avoid inappropriate relationships with students.

“We really think teachers are role models for children and they need to act professionally at all times, whether that’s inside the classroom or outside the classroom,” Walker said.

Before students officially enter the program, Walker said, prospective teachers take an introduction to education course in which professionalism and the standards of the program are made clear. Things get more stringent from there.

Prospective teachers undergo multiple dispositions, or evaluations, through a system put in place within the last decade, Walker said. One such area of evaluation is professionalism, in which evaluators look for ethical behavior inside and outside the classroom, among other things.

“I go into all these intro classes and I talk about professionalism and I talk about our policies, because they’re very strict,” Walker said, adding that one student was dismissed from the program last year for a violation. “They hear about it through the program.”

Walker said social media, and the way social media should be used, are addressed.

“That would be our largest area of professional concern,” Walker said, adding that students are given examples of inappropriate behavior, such as adding a student as a friend on Facebook or posting a picture of a student on Instagram. “You will be dismissed (from the program).”

While Walker says there is no defined term for ‘inappropriate relationship’ in their program, all students are instructed to avoid physical contact of any kind.

“Giving a child a pat on the back, I think kids need stuff like that, but we tell (UND students) don’t do anything that could be construed as inappropriate,” Walker said, including meeting alone with a student of the opposite gender, closing the door on a classroom, and giving a student a ride in their vehicle are all things that should be avoided.

Walker said she believes graduates, who have been constantly monitored for the duration of their time in the program, are ready to lead a classroom.

“We’re a real strong program,” she said. “I take the profession very seriously, and our faculty do, too.”

Once graduates leave UND, or any other program, and become licensed teachers, the North Dakota Education Standards and Practices Board keeps a watchful eye.

ESPB executive director Janet Welk said with each new license they provide a copy of the code of Professional Conduct for Educators.

‘Above suspicion’

Andrea Clemens was an unsure, unhappy ninth grader in Massachusetts when her science teacher began to show an interest in her. He was the cool teacher, the one everybody wanted to be friends with.

“Students loved him,” Clemens said. “He was above suspicion.”

If there was a prom king for teachers, he would have been wearing the crown.

The teacher soon began spending more time with Clemens, taking her places in his car, talking on the phone, “building up my trust.”

Months went by and their friendship grew. She began to feel better about herself because this cool teacher, the one everyone loved, is “thinking I’m something kind of special.”

At the end of ninth grade, the teacher gave her a music box — a gift she said made her feel uneasy, but certainly not something to be rejected. After all, it was just a gift.

But things changed when she turned 16, the age of consent in Massachusetts. The teacher made a move and the sexual abuse began.

“There is such a power differential. There is no equal footing (between a teacher and a student),” Clemens said. “What people need to understand is the grooming process. He spent two years grooming me.”

Clemens, the author of the book “Invisible Target: Breaking the Cycle of Educator Sexual Abuse,” said the abuse went on for years while the teacher, the one everyone loved, controlled her every move.

“I think he was always kind of looking for the perfect target,” she said. “Everything about him was having control. He would say it was my responsibility (to keep the abuse secret).”

Clemens said he used to make her wait by a specific phone booth so that they could talk in secret, he tried to keep her from going to college, from getting her driver’s license — from moving on from him. He threatened her on a regular basis to keep the affair a secret.

By the end of Clemens’ senior year, fearful all the time, she managed to get out of his grasp but still never reported the abuse.

It wasn’t until years later, after a remark from a friend, did she even consider he might be doing this to more girls. She called her former principal, who confronted the man still working at the school. He flatly denied everything until months later, when rumors of two other victims began to swirl around. Clemens was called by authorities and cooperated.

The teacher took a plea bargain and served a little more than a year in jail.

Now, with her silence broken, Clemens is a regional director for KidSafeFoundation.org, an organization dedicated to protecting children by preventing sexual abuse.

Clemens speaks all over the country about the signs to look for and situations to avoid, including gift-giving, social media use and alone time.

“It’s hard to believe a wonderful teacher could be capable of these things because of their reputation,” Clemens said. “A vast majority of teachers are great. But there’s that small number.”

According to a report from the U.S. Department of Education released in 2004, the number of victims is not small at all.The report says one in 10 children will experience some form of sexual misconduct by teachers during their schooling. This equals 4.5 million children.

Clemens said it is important not to blame the victim, who as a teenager shouldn’t have the expectation of making adult decisions. That burden is on the adult, she says.

“They have a professional responsibility to not cross that boundary. Because of that power differential, all bets are off.”

If there is suspicion of an inappropriate relationship going on, the best thing is to voice that concern.

“If you have a gut feeling, that doesn’t come from nowhere. Wonder out loud,” Clemens said. Be careful to avoid unjust allegations, she added, by approaching the adult involved and ask if they feel what they are doing is appropriate.

After years of being too afraid of her accuser to report him, Clemens looks back on it with different eyes now.

“I wish to God someone had ended it for me.”

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