Blaming The Accuser Is Not The Answer To Coping With Sex Charges Against Teachers

When a Grand Forks high school teacher was charged with having sex with a minor, I expected the typical response, which included attacks on the teacher. I even expected some to defend him.

What I didn’t expect was that some would attack the girl involved in the case — she hasn’t been identified by the media, as is practice for minors involved in sex cases. Some say she should be in as much trouble as the teacher for letting it happen, or she could have said no. Others placed blame on teenagers and the way they dress. One person said since she is not a child but an adolescent — she was between the ages 15 and 18 when the alleged acts of sex occurred — she should be held accountable for her choices.

As a journalist, my mindset is not to jump to conclusions and don’t assume what happened. If anything, I tend to argue for the defendant, as I was taught everyone is innocent until proven guilty.

But that shouldn’t suggest that we should blame the accuser, especially when it comes to sex-related cases.

I can understand where those comments are coming from. West Fargo teacher Aaron Knodel was accused of having a sexual relationship with his student. After a lengthy legal battle, the charges against Knodel were dropped.

The case made those who followed it think twice about students who accuse teachers of crimes. Knodel had so much support from teachers, parents and students. Instead of demonizing him, many came to his aid to prove his innocence by saying he was a great teacher. And good for him that he had the support of so many.

However, support can be misguided and can come in the form of hate. Knodel’s accuser insisted after the trial was over that he was guilty. She and her family continued to protest the teacher’s reinstatement into the school system.

She certainly had the right to do so, though Knodel’s supporters were not happy about it. Some called her a liar and told her to stop dragging his name in the mud.

In the eyes of the law, Knodel is innocent and the case is closed. However, because of this case — and it’s not his fault — people are more likely to look at accusers with cautious and critical eyes.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise when people don’t want to believe the situation that Whalen finds himself in now. I’ve never met the man, but by many accounts, he is a beloved teacher and has a lot of support behind him, just as Knodel did. The public doesn’t want to believe he did something wrong, so naturally they point a finger at the teenager involved.

I’m not saying anyone is guilty, nor am I saying that the accuser is making up this story, but I will say this. Students look up to their teachers for guidance and instruction. They trust educators sometimes with their life and certainly with their futures. Teachers are in a position of power. If a child — under the law, those under the age of 18 are still children, and developmentally, they cannot fully comprehend the consequences of a sexual relationship — makes advances, it’s up to the teacher to make the decision to say no. They have power and authority, and we trust them with the responsibility of guiding children.

Whalen is innocent until proven guilty, but if past cases have taught us anything, he will be judged by the public. It shouldn’t happen, but that’s the life we live in today.

No one wants to see anyone accused of a crime, but accusations about sex with a minor, or any sexual crimes, must be taken seriously. The police have done their investigation and feel they have enough evidence to at least charge Whalen. If he is innocent, he will be proven so.

But blaming the accuser is not going to help him, and it certainly doesn’t show support for him in a positive way. All it does is turn a community against a child. We don’t know what transpired between Whalen and the student, and we don’t know why she waited so long to tell authorities.

In the end, we need to hold our tongues and wait until the facts come out before we judge anyone. We need to refrain from sending the message that anyone who believes they are being sexually abused will be publicly ridiculed and that it is better for them to just live with it. As much as we may want to believe that a teacher we all love and trust would never do such a thing, we can’t resort to blaming the accuser in order to rationalize the situation, nor should we condemn said teacher and assume he or she is guilty.

The facts of the case will come out. We need to wait for those facts until we decide to take anyone to Social Media Court.

5 Responses

  1. Hey April,
    I read much of what you write and I truly am thankful for your dedication to the thankless profession that is journalism. As a journalism educator, I only hope my students show as much passion for reporting as you do on a daily basis. I also appreciate your thoughtful post and I agree with much of what you say – “Social Media Court” is an ugly reality of today’s culture and definitely needs to be addressed. However, dealing with false accusations should also be addressed, which I wrote about here: http://hiredfiredinspired.com/2015/06/28/walking-the-delicate-line/

    My issue with your comparison to the Knodel case is two-fold:
    1. The details of the case actually revealed that the accuser did, in fact, lie. I could run through these details for you here, but I cover them in much more detail on my blog. So, when you say that it is her right to protest Knodel’s innocence you are correct, but you can’t blame people who call her a liar once all information was revealed. It is a fact since much of what she said was proven untrue (for example, it was even proven that the alleged book with handwritten notes was never touched, which shows that somebody forged the handwriting) – it’s just a sad reality that those untruths were not uncovered in the investigation before the AG sought charges (although the fact that the book was not touched was uncovered, but didn’t stop the assistant AG from pressing charges). And, really, what other route would the accuser take other than voicing her displeasure after all these untruths were uncovered? Admitting that she lied would be admitting guilt in multiple felonies.

    2. I am a journalist at heart. I believe the role of journalism is to act as a watchdog in today’s vastly evolving world. Journalists have many roles, including the responsibility to uncover corruption, injustice, etc. Multiple legal experts have questioned why the Knodel trial even resulted in charges, given the weak evidence presented by the Attorney General office. Why has the media not investigated the Bureau of Criminal Investigation and their lack of due diligence when seeking the charges against Knodel? I understand that BCI detectives basically act with immunity, but this negligence actually cost a person their livelihood. The materials from their investigation are all public – why are they not reviewed by media after so many questions have been asked about the authenticity of that investigation? Why are media members not looking into the millions of dollars spent on the trial process by the state with so little evidence to continue (private jets, DNA testing, etc.)? In addition, Cass County State’s Attorney Birch Burdick has had almost a year to review and charge the juror who lied (in a 1-17-16 article in The Forum he said it is still a possibility). It would require either: a) reviewing the juror’s transcript during the screening process and questioning the troopers she talked with at the hospital or b) giving this investigation to a detective who can conduct those tasks. Why is the media allowing this injustice to continue without holding Burdick’s feet to the metaphorical fire?

    I’m not going to speak about the other case, even though I knew Mr. Whalen and graduated from Grand Forks Central. The reason I won’t refer to it is because I don’t know all the facts. I also remain hopeful that some members of the media will pursue the answers to the questions I mentioned above. As a spirited journalist, I would hope the media would report the facts as they occur and continue to seek the truth if it does not seem to be presented through due process. To do otherwise would truly be an injustice.

    1. April Baumgarten

      Thanks for the comments, Jeremy. In regard to the Knodel case, is it all right if I forward your concerns about looking closer at the BCI to The Forum?

      1. Jeremy Murphy

        Yes April, that is fine. I am sure they are already aware of these issues. I think it is difficult to gather info. from BCI and the AG office.

  2. Jeremy Murphy

    Yes April. That is fine, although I’m sure they are already aware of these issues. I think the AG office and BCI make it extremely difficult to gather info.

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