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.