WEST FARGO – Two of the three largest school districts in the area have new policies spelling out inappropriate behavior between staff and students – both face-to-face and electronically – while the third will review existing policies to see if they should be changed or if a new policy is needed.

In August, just 10 days after a state licensing board approved West Fargo English teacher Aaron Knodel’s return to the classroom, the Fargo School District adopted a policy limiting out-of-school staff contact with students. In late September, the West Fargo School District followed suit. Moorhead schools have had policies in place since 2012 regarding electronic communications between employees and students, but will reassess them this school year.

Knodel had been accused of having a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old student in 2009. In April, a jury acquitted him on three charges of corruption of a minor, and two other charges were dismissed after a mistrial was declared.

A key piece of evidence at trial was a record of nearly 100 phone calls between Knodel and the student – six of them occurring after midnight, including one that lasted four hours.

When asked whether Knodel’s behavior would have been a violation if the new district policy had been in place then, West Fargo Superintendent David Flowers said “it’s possible,” but that “every situation would have to be investigated on its own merits.”

When pressed further about whether Knodel’s conduct would now constitute a violation, Flowers said “likely, yes,” adding, “I don’t want to submit him to that now. He’s been dragged through so much already.”

West Fargo’s new administrative policy outlines boundaries for appropriate and inappropriate relationships between staff and students. It lays out eight types of boundaries, including those involving power, relationships and communication.

It states that behavior of a sexual nature toward a student is “strictly prohibited” and any activity that could lead to a sexual relationship, including non-school-related phone calls, text or email exchanges, activity on social media and sexualized dialogue, is not allowed.

Under the policy, anyone aware of prohibited behavior should report it to a building administrator or the West Fargo superintendent, and the district will finish its investigation within 60 days unless there’s also a legal or criminal investigation in progress. If disciplinary action is warranted, the district will take action, which could include firing the employee.

In crafting the new regulations, Flowers said a committee looked at policies from the North Dakota School Boards Association and the Fargo district. Parts of the West Fargo policy are worded exactly as Fargo’s. However, Flowers said West Fargo’s is more broad in that it includes those descriptions of boundaries between appropriate and inappropriate relationships.

“We want to provide staff with as much guidance as possible,” Flowers said.

In recommending earlier this year that Knodel be retained as a teacher, Flowers said the long phone conversations with the female student who eventually accused him of a sexual relationship were Knodel’s response to a district program that encouraged teachers to act as mentors to struggling students. Flowers said the initiative should have had more oversight.

“We probably didn’t do as good a job as we could have to spell out what that means, what are the parameters,” Flowers said.

When the Fargo school district adopted its student-staff contact policy in August, Superintendent Jeff Schatz said the move wasn’t because of Knodel’s case but because of how communication is changing.

“It might look like it’s a reaction to something, but it’s not,” Schatz said at the time.

Like Fargo and West Fargo, the Moorhead School District looks to its state school boards association for guidance on policy changes.

“When they do updates, we always update ours,” said Lynne Kovash, superintendent of Moorhead Schools.

Kovash said two policies governing electronic communications between employees and students, and employees’ use of social media are up for review this school year as part of the regular review cycle.

She said Moorhead will likely take a look at West Fargo’s new student contact policy when deciding whether her district needs to make any changes.

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