Omaha Teacher Retained Position After Multiple Student Allegations of Sexual Assault

by Cara on May 24, 2011

in education and schools, misogyny, patriarchy, rape and sexual assault, sexual exploitation and harassment, violence against women and girls

Eighth-grade teacher Shad Knutson has been charged with three counts of sexual assault against three different female students over three years. He is no longer working for Nathan Hale Middle School, where all of the alleged assaults were committed, but he did remain employed with them for three years after the first allegation was made. Numerous additional allegations were made in the years that followed. And still, the school’s “investigations” resulted in his remaining employed, until several months after police finally got involved.

School policy has come into question after a former eighth-grade teacher was accused of sexual assault. Did Omaha Public Schools do enough when students came forward with allegations of sexual harassment against Shad Knutson?

The 34-year-old taught at Nathan Hale Middle School for three years. Each year, a different female student came forward, claiming he touched them inappropriately. But it took until last fall for police to get involved.

Now, Knutson faces three counts of felony sexual assault.

One board member brought up his concerns at a committee meeting Monday. Justin Wayne said he wants police involvement from the very start of an investigation into reported abuse. He said let teachers teach and let police follow the facts.

“As long as OPS’s process and an outside person’s process come to the same conclusion, it’s OK. It’s when they differ (that) there’s an issue,” Wayne said.

OPS said repeated internal investigations into the reports of sexual harassment turned up no credible evidence. But prosecutors disagree.

School staff and district leaders said its policy works. They said they prioritize student safety, while protecting educators from false reports.

Except that student safety clearly isn’t being prioritized when the policy on the sexual assault of 13-year-old girls seems to apply a three-strikes before you’re out rule.

While the question admittedly gets a lot murkier when there are minors involved and the offender is a government-paid and sponsored employee, as a general rule I am not opposed to keeping internal reports of misconduct internal. Victims often do not want to get law enforcement involved, for very good reason. I believe that their choices in terms of reporting methods should be respected (while all options should also be made available and accessible to them), and I do believe that there should be means outside the broken U.S. judicial system for dealing with sexual violence.

The problem, however, occurs when these local systems of accountability are, like the judicial system itself, more invested in protecting the rights and reputation of abusers than the rights and safety of victims. Institutions are notoriously bad at holding themselves accountable. While schools are supposed to be in the business of serving and protecting students, they far too frequently are much more interested in protecting themselves as entities.

This story largely caught my interest due to the way it so closely mirrors an episode I personally witnessed at my own middle school. Also in eighth grade, the new English teacher began sexually harassing a certain female student in full public view. Throughout class he would leer at her, “flirt,” and make highly inappropriate and sexualized remarks about her clothing choices and physical appearance. He would frequently hold her after class for no legitimate reason. She told us (and while I now regret many of our “supportive” gestures, we fully believed her) that during these after-class meetings, he would ask her personal questions, stand overly close to her, brush up against her, and even stroke her hair.

We didn’t know words like “sexual harassment” then. So we just called it “creepy.” But we knew that it wasn’t right.

When she and her mother reported the harassment to administration, they were told, verbatim, that the teacher-predator was “a nice guy” who was “awkward” and “nervous” and that he didn’t “mean it like that.” When the harassment thereafter escalated, she did her best to quietly survive.

And when those of us who watched it happening attempted to engage in rudimentary good bystander behavior, we were repeatedly rebuffed by the adults. A male student who pointedly interrupted the in-class harassment by asking the teacher why he was always focusing on and bothering the student in question was met with a scolding for being rude and making inappropriate suggestions about the teacher’s motives. Several friends and myself — and I do not doubt we weren’t the only ones — attempted to report the harassment on two separate occasions to our two most trusted teachers. In both instances, we were met with aghast faces — not at the harassing teacher’s behavior, but at ours. We were chastised for “gossiping” and insulting the teacher’s reputation, and again assured that the teacher was “a nice guy.” If there was as problem, we were told, the administration would have dealt with it when it was reported. Since they did not take action, there was not a problem, and we needed to drop the issue.

I do not know if the teacher’s behavior ever progressed to physical sexual assault either that year or in subsequent years once I had graduated from the school, as it clearly did in the case of Shad Knutson. But I certainly walked away with the impression that if it had, like Shad Knutson he would have been protected. It was my very first lesson in rape culture, though I did not yet know it.

While I do not in any way wish to minimize the experience of the student who was the direct target of his harassment — none of us experienced what she did — our teacher inevitably victimized all of his female students by proxy, by stealing our sense of safety in the classroom. This is how misogynistic harassment and assault work — by terrorizing not only the direct victim, but all women who witness and know of it. We are taught that we, too, can become the victim at any time. We are made hyper-aware of the fact that we will be treated differently and made more vulnerable because of our genders. We are made defensive in our everyday lives.

And in this case, we were taught that the teachers who we trusted, who we very much loved and in whom we confided, the teachers who we believed were there to protect us, would given the opportunity choose their colleague’s reputation of our words. They would protect their own before they would protect us. They would choose friends’ careers over student safety. They would teach us good touch and bad touch and to say something if we saw something, and then when we followed their instructions they would tell us to shut the fuck up.

While I definitely don’t claim the circumstances to be identical, there’s no doubt in my mind that the victims who originally reported the harassment and assaults and the students who watched the administration allow Knutson back into the classroom no less than three times did get a very similar set of lessons. The girls especially were taught that their word and safety would not be valued, that they would not be believed or taken seriously, that what men in positions of authority did to their bodies did not matter, and speaking up was often fruitless. If they were ever privileged enough, as I was, to previously believe that their educators had their best interests at heart, they were taught here that their educators could not be trusted. (And if they already could not trust their educators, this was then yet one more horrific instance in a long series of systemic violence.)

What makes this case even more disturbing is how administrators still do not believe that they have done anything wrong, and still defend their right to put predator teachers’ needs above those abused students‘:

Susan Colvin, principal at Nathan Hale Middle School, addressed a school board committee, which voted Monday to keep in place district policies for reporting allegations of sexual harassment and child abuse.

Board member Bambi Bartek asked Colvin if she believed she had done the right thing.

“Without a doubt, definitely,” Colvin said in her first public remarks about the allegations against former Nathan Hale teacher Shad M. Knutson. Colvin declined to comment further after the meeting. [...]

Proulx said student complaints should be looked into, but in a way that maintains the teacher’s dignity.

Board vice president Shirley Tyree said such allegations should be handled carefully.

“We need to be very, very careful when we start accusing people of things,” she said. “They never get that portion of their life back.”

If nothing has been learned from this case, I don’t know what it might possibly take for a lesson to be learned. After all, one can hardly learn what one actively resists being taught. What we’re seeing here is a clear statement that teacher rights come before student rights and student safety. It’s not a particularly new or surprising revelation that the rights of abusers come before those of their victims, but particularly within a school setting it is one with chilling implications, nonetheless.

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{ 14 comments }

1 Alex May 25, 2011 at 8:49 pm

My great aunt was forcibly kissed by teacher when she was thirteen, and she was treated like the criminal for “tempting a respectable man”. Really sad to see that things haven’t changed in all that time. A few years after I graduated elementary school, I was informed that my grade seven teacher had been accused of sexual harassment/assault (I can’t remember which). The person telling me about it claimed the girl had lied. I had liked this teacher, so I asked for more details, like what made him know she was lying. He couldn’t give them. She was a liar and that was that, even if she wasn’t.

2 nakedthoughts May 26, 2011 at 10:33 am

I’m tutoring a young teenager. I kept telling her that she needs to talk to her teacher about her grade. She kept insisting it would be awkward. I kept pressing until she explained how he touched back and bra strap (and had done it to other girls.)

We talked to her parents, but the words misunderstanding kept arising, and that he was just socially inept. Them mom explained to me how he didn’t seem like a predator. I don’t know what to do.

3 AC May 27, 2011 at 2:28 am

@NT, call the child services agency in your area and ask what they think. I got them involved with a situation that a school was not handling. It helped very much.

4 Katrina May 27, 2011 at 8:44 am

I had one high school teacher flat out tell all the students that flirting and trying to sleeping with him wouldn’t raise their grades. I tought it was creepy at the time but didn’t get any bad vibes from him. Now I realize how inappropriate it was to suggest that the girls would be always be at fault if anything sexual happen if she successful seduced him. So, I can get why people look at someone and think, “Nah. He/She seems nice to me. He/She can’t be a bad person.” I doubt that teacher ever hurt a student in anyway, but the ‘joke’ was definately off color for a high school class. It would even be inappropriate for a college class since the power difference between a student and a teacher would still exist. People really have to get rid of the mindset that predators are always shifty people hiding in bushes. If they couldn’t seem nice and safe around adults they wouldn’t have access to their underage (or of age) victims.

5 Kalica May 27, 2011 at 8:47 pm

Hey, I just wanted to say to Nakedthoughts up there that she might want to bring up the fact that one of the first things a successful predator in the wild learns to do is not be noticed. Life would be so much easier if predators wore signs, but… they’re too smart for that.

6 Georgia May 27, 2011 at 9:32 pm

Cara, thanks for writing the article. As a teenager, I never saw any signs of teacher molestation, but I can easily relate to the attitude of that generation. It was a confusing time because we were taught to have the utmost repect for adults; never argue or talk back. I think most of us were ill-equipped to protect ourselves.

7 wiggles May 28, 2011 at 10:50 pm

FTA: “School staff and district leaders said its policy works. They said they prioritize student safety, while protecting educators from false reports.”

The fact that they throw in that line about “false reports” is really telling. Is it me or does it seem to anybody else that the threat of “false reports” of sexual assault and harassment is becoming increasingly overblown and institutionally ingrained? Victims have always been blamed and sexual assault and harassment has always been excused in one way or another, but I seem to remember a time when not every single statement on the issue included a caveat about lying bitches.

8 Katrina June 2, 2011 at 8:22 am

@wiggles

It’s always seemed instituationaly ingrained that rape victims are just lying bitches from the start. But, it could be the age difference since I don’t know if we are from the same generation. As long as I’ve been old enough to read news papers and follow the news, rape victims are ‘alleged victims’ of a ‘alleged sexual assualt’. The men (or women) charged with the crime are just refered to by name as ‘potential suspects’ even when they are the only one being accused. When it is a case of stranger rape, I understand someone being a potential suspect, but date rapist get that same vague title when the woman knows for a fact the identity of her rapist (or rapists in the case of gang rape).

Reports like this one are always writen in a way to give the suspect the benefit of the doubt and leave suspision of revenge/vedictiveness/buyer’s remorse/attention seeking on the victim. If society in general wasn’t so worried about ‘false reports’ more people would realize that the vast majority of reports are true. It’s very aggrevating when a rape case is handled carefully to protect the predator’s reputation since that always tarnishes the victim’s reputation. Most people assume a child predator would be dealt with swiftly and wonder why it’s taking so long for the police to be involved if the girl has any credibility. If the school didn’t fear ‘false reports’ so much, they would have stopped the teacher before he had two more victims.

9 denelian June 4, 2011 at 7:51 am

a terrible thing happened my 9th grade/freshman year.

a girl actually made a false sexual harrassment claim against a teacher.

in her partial defense, 3 OTHER girls had made [NON-false] reports against this teacher. and she was failing the class – so she decided the way to “fix” it was join the other 3 girls, and claim that the teacher was failing her because she wouldn’t “do what he wanted”.

and because she did this, the school district – despite not just physical evidence and witnesses [including another TEACHER and a janitor] but VIDEO TAPE EVIDENCE of him restraining one of the original 3, holding both her hands in his left, while he pulled her top down and stuck his hand down her bra – dropped the ENTIRE THING. if *one* was false, well then it possible that ALL of them were, and everyone knew that some girls would do anything for a good grade and the video didn’t have sound so we don’t know that the girl was OPPOSED to what happened and…

and.

most parents of daughters refused to allow their daughters to be in a class taught by this man, after that point. the school allowed them to take their daughters out for that school year – but the next, NO ONE was allowed to transfer out of his class.
i was one of those not allowed to transfer out.

and he did indeed try it on me – i wasn’t alone, i know for a FACT that he tried to sexually assult at least 7 other girls that year – but one advantage of a sociopathic jackass for a stepfather is that he forced me to learn to fight. the first the teacher tried to grab me, i side-stepped. the second, i just blocked. the third time, i put him in an arm lock, and said “see that camera up there? it’s recording this. this is the 3rd time in 2 minutes you’ve tried to grab my boobs. next time i’m breaking your arm, and i won’t get in trouble because it’s ALL RECORDED.”

he called me a bunch of names, not the least of which was “frigid whore”, and told me to get the fuck out before he decided he didn’t CARE about the camera.

the next day, the camera was destroyed. he asked me to stay after class.
i asked 5 of the guys to stay with me. when he tried to send them out, i refused. he said “i need to talk to you about your grade” and i said something like “they can hear anything about it, i don’t care, i refuse to be alone with you and it’s against school policy anyway.”

he got this disgusted look on his face, then just walked out.

after that, all the girls he’d harrassed kept guys around them all. the. time. it was the ONLY defense against him.

my senior year, he got caught, by the principle, forcing a freshman boy to perform oral sex on him.

the suspended him for a MONTH. the school told the boy that if he told anyone, he’d be a mockery and everyone would thing he was gay, and that if he went to the police the school would sue him for slander.

over winter break, *something* happened, and when we came back, we had a new principle and a new teacher.
no, i don’t know what happened. i was just grateful, because this teacher taught the ONLY AP chemistry and Physics classes, and i was exhausted from dodging him. the new teacher wasn’t the best teacher ever, or anything, and he wouldn’t stand any closer than 5feet to ANY student if he could help; he was terrified of being “falsely accused” as his predecessor had been.

because all the REAL assults the man committed were nowhere NEAR as tramatic and horrifying as the sole, single false accusation made BECAUSE there were already REAL accusations…

10 denelian June 4, 2011 at 7:58 am

erm. a paragraph got lost or dropped or something -
after the “in her defense” paragraph, there should be written:

the irony is the he *had* harrassed the girl who made the false report, although not to the extent he did the other 3 girls [or to the extent she claimed, when and where she claimed, etc], and he had stopped as soon as he had “better” [in his head] targets. he just said creepy things, gave those “i know what you look like naked looks” and often hinted that her grades would improve if she did him “favors”… all of which disappeared when, as i said, he found victimes he “liked” better

11 Alex June 5, 2011 at 10:33 pm

So the one “false” accusation was only exaggerated? For fuck’s sake.

In my original comment, I forgot to mention my grade ten religion teacher who sexually harassed his female students for years (such as intimidating us into never asking to go to the bathroom because he wanted us to “prove” to him if we had a “girl problem”) before being fired, and even then I think he was only fired because he kept coming to school drunk.

12 Alex June 6, 2011 at 10:52 pm

@denelian,

Do you have any links to that story in newspapers or anything? I had written a post explaining why the few false accusations that there are really are not an excuse to doubt sexual assault reports in general. I think your story is a perfect example of that, and I would like to include it in my writing if you wouldn’t mind.

13 John June 12, 2011 at 8:26 pm

When I read the account, my initial reaction was that she probably didn’t have any witnesses and then I read your account. It reminded me of a college professor I was familiar with. He seemed like a “nice guy”. He harassed his female students in class also, one student in particular. She complained and there was an investigation. The student’s position was supported by several students in the class. The school instituted sexual harassment awareness training. The instructor was not terminated because it would have been too difficult to replace him midterm. The worst part was that they couldn’t terminate his contract 5 weeks later for the offense because they let him finish the class. He spent two or three more terms at the college and they didn’t renew his contract. I thought that was a load of BS. In this case the school was trying to protect its’ business interests rather than the instructor instead of the students’ safety. This occurred only about 12 years ago.

They might have been afraid of a lawsuit. The girls should give them one.

14 wiggles June 15, 2011 at 3:37 pm

Board vice president Shirley Tyree said such allegations should be handled carefully.

“We need to be very, very careful when we start accusing people of things,” she said. “They never get that portion of their life back.”

Being falsely accused of sexual assault is WAY worse than being sexually assaulted and denied legal recourse about it – also a classic.

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