WEST FARGO - Although school districts in the Fargo area have policies that define appropropriate student-teacher boundaries, school officials find themselves still working to educate all involved on how to avoid crossing a line, which can be difficult in a world of ubiquitous social media.
"I think we can overcome this problem, but we need to really educate everyone in the dangers that lie in the use of social media," West Fargo Superintendent Beth Slette said.
The issue has been highlighted this summer by the case of a former West Fargo middle school teacher, Shannon Moser, who's accused of sending illicit photos and videos to six students and having sex with one of them. Her case is the third high-profile example in recent years of a West Fargo teacher accused of misconduct involving students.
The West Fargo, Fargo and Moorhead school districts have similar policies that set the boundaries between students and staff, including social media contact. The policies outline how to report misconduct and potential consequences.
"I don't think the policy is bad," Slette said. "The key is enforcing it and making sure everyone is following it. If it is not followed, it needs to be addressed."
While Fargo and West Fargo school districts continuously review their policies, it's unlikely the ones that define student-staff relationships will be revised, officials said.
"I'm not sure our recent outcome would have been different," Slette said. "We shouldn't have to say don't have sex with a student, but it is in there."
Policies reviewed after Knodel trial
The three districts revamped or examined their policies in 2015 following the trial of West Fargo teacher Aaron Knodel. Knodel was accused of having a sexual relationship with a student in 2009 and faced five felony charges.
During a five-day trial in Cass County District Court, evidence of more than 100 calls to the student was presented in court. However, Knodel defended the communication by pointing to a West Fargo initiative at that time that encouraged mentorship and contact outside of school.
Knodel was found not guilty on three of the five charges, and the remaining two resulted in a mistrial. The district and the North Dakota Education Standards and Practices Board found no ethical violation, and Knodel has since returned as a teacher at Sheyenne High School.
While there are now clearer policies in place, cases of misconduct have still occurred.
Last year, Sheyenne High School teacher Elizabeth Doster resigned and her license was suspended for five years by the state board after allegations of partying with her students over the summer surfaced.
This summer, Moser was charged in Cass County District Court with eight felonies: gross sexual imposition, sexual assault, two counts of using a minor in a sexual performance and four counts of luring minors by computer.
Police began an investigation into the allegations and notified the school district on July 12, a day before Moser resigned from her post as a Liberty Middle School teacher.
In 2017, reports of inappropriate, but not illegal conduct - such as sharing personal information and inconsistent classroom management - caused the district to place Moser on an improvement plan, which was followed up by weekly monitoring. It appeared Moser was following the plan, until police notified the district of a criminal investigation.
"If district administration had been previously aware of that criminal behavior, we would have recommended her immediate dismissal from her teaching duties," Slette said in a letter to parents.
Social media policies
In terms of social media contact, West Fargo's policy says it should be avoided. "The board can certainly look at this again. The only thing I can think of to change is if you removed 'should be avoided' and instead put in place 'prohibited,'" Slette said.
Like West Fargo, Fargo recommends social media contact be avoided and has ways for staff, parents and students to report infractions, said Fargo Superintendent Rupak Gandhi.
In both school districts, if a report of misconduct is filed, the district will begin an investigation that can result in varying degrees of discipline for staff, including termination.
In both districts, officials recognize that social media can sometimes be used by teachers positively, as a way to communicate with students. "It provides another avenue of communication, but it's always limited to professional communication," Gandhi said.
The two districts continue to educate staff and students about the dangers of social media. "Even innocent communication on social media can be misconstrued by a student," Slette said.
In the three recent West Fargo cases, the teachers involved had no prior criminal allegations. Still, Slette said, officials are considering what, if anything, they could have done differently.
"We've asked ourselves what further education could we have done to prevent this. Each situation has been very different," she said. "We are concerned ultimately for the students and the victims, and we want to make sure we are looking out for them."