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September 17, 2014

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N.D. teacher of the year charged with 5 felonies

WEST FARGO, N.D. (AP) — A reigning North Dakota teacher of the year was charged Friday with five felony counts for allegedly having sexual contact with a female student more than five years ago.

A complaint filed in East Central District Court charges Aaron Knodel, an English teacher at West Fargo High School, with corruption or solicitation of a minor. He's scheduled to be arraigned on Sept. 5.

Robert Hoy, Knodel's attorney, said in a statement that Knodel is not guilty and passed a lie-detector test.

"I don't know why such allegations would arise now, but the passage of time makes it much more difficult for Aaron to defend himself," Hoy said. "So, until we can have an opportunity to present this case to a jury, I ask that prospective jurors keep an open mind and reserve judgment, despite the salacious allegations that have been made.

"There are always two sides to every story," the West Fargo attorney said.

David Flowers, superintendent of schools at West Fargo, said at a press conference Friday that he is recommending that Knodel be placed on suspension without pay or benefits until the case is decided. Knodel had been on paid administrative leave.

Flowers declined to comment about the specific allegations.

"The school district has taken necessary and appropriate steps to insure that Mr. Knodel has not had contact with students through his role as a teacher in the school district since the original complaint was filed," Flowers said.

Authorities say the incidents happened in February or March of 2009, including twice in a classroom, twice at Knodel's residence and once in the victim's car. The alleged victim was 17 years old at the time.

Flowers said police told school district officials on Feb. 14 about the investigation into Knodel's conduct.

"We knew the general nature of the complaint alleged misconduct with a student," Flowers said. "We therefore determined that administrative leave was the best course of action."

Mike Reitan, the West Fargo police chief, said Friday the case was transferred to the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation because of Knodel's relationship with detectives within the department.

"We have shared information with the school as we have been allowed ... and have been following up with BCI to make sure the investigation continued to progress," Reitan said.

Knodel, who also coaches speech and debate at West Fargo, was named the 2014 teacher of the year by North Dakota United, the teachers union. A press release put out by the union after the award said he started both a student congress and trivia team at the school.

Knodel also served as lead negotiator with the West Fargo Education Association, the release said.

"Aaron Knodel is a husband, father and highly regarded high school teacher," Hoy said. "He has been a positive influence in the lives of hundreds of students. As you can imagine, being charged with a crime is a devastating experience, which will impact him and his family forever."

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