- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 19, 2015

WEST FARGO, N.D. (AP) - A former North Dakota teacher of the year who was accused and then cleared of having a sexual relationship with a student is returning to the classroom.

The West Fargo School District confirmed Wednesday that Aaron Knodel will be teaching English at Sheyenne, one of two public high schools in the city. Classes begin next week but teachers were at school Wednesday for workshops.

Knodel was suspended for the last school year after being charged with having a sexual relationship with the 17-year-old female student in 2009. He was cleared by a state district court in June and reinstated by the West Fargo School Board last month. The state teacher licensing board essentially backed that decision.

District officials originally said they weren’t sure if Knodel would return to the classroom as a teacher. The school district said Wednesday that students can opt out of any class, including Knodel’s, but the district doesn’t track those numbers.

“Students at Sheyenne have had their schedules with teacher names on them for nearly a week now, so we probably would have heard about it if there were a whole lot of them who requested transfers” from Knodel’s class, said Heather Konschak, spokeswoman for district superintendent David Flowers.

Knodel, who has not talked publicly since he was charged with five felony counts of corruption or solicitation of a minor, declined to comment Wednesday to The Associated Press.

Phone calls were at the center of Knodel’s trial in April. Evidence showed more than 90 calls between Knodel and the student from Oct. 10, 2008, to March 9, 2009. That included 23 calls after 10 p.m. and six after midnight, including one that lasted four hours.

Mike McNeff, the Rugby school superintendent and member of the state teacher licensing board, said he was bothered by the conversations and voted against dismissing the case against Knodel. The vote was 5-3 in favor of Knodel, with little discussion.

“Thirty-six hours of talking to a student and 90 phone calls - I just feel it’s overboard,” McNeff said.

Mindy Grant, a West Fargo parent, said Wednesday she would like to hear Knodel admit that the phone calls were a bad idea.

“Even if there was no sexual connotation or anything going on in these conversations, even if there was no criminal liability proved, I think that what he did was extremely inappropriate,” Grant said. “And for the school district to stand up and support his actions is a horrible signal to any other student who might find themselves in that sort of position.”

Knodel, who previously taught English and debate at West Fargo High School, was assigned to Sheyenne because there was a need at that school, Konschack said. Greg Grooters, principal of Sheyenne, referred all questions to the district office.

Flowers, who investigated Knodel’s conduct before recommending to the school board that he be reinstated, said in his report that Knodel’s phone calls were well-intended and fulfilled a challenge that teachers mentor and support struggling students. Flowers also recommended that the district make new rules for contact between students and teachers.

Patti Stedman, the school board president, said she has not heard from any of her constituents about Knodel returning to the classroom. She also said the board trusts the investigation by Flowers.

“I feel confident that he did his due diligence and the right decision was made,” Stedman said. “He has nothing to gain by putting somebody back in the school system who he feels is not going to be good for kids.”

Konschak said Flowers was not granting interviews about Knodel.

“We’re trying to put this behind us,” Konschak said. “We’re trying to get school started. We’re trying to get Aaron into the classroom to teach.”

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