Her daughter was a top-notch student, served on the Student Council and was active in sports at Nathan Hale Middle School.
Then one day the school office called, saying that the girl, who had just turned 14, had made some serious allegations.
Put her on the phone, the mom said.
“Mr. Knutson touched my breasts (over the clothes) twice,” the girl told her mom. “He also put his pen in his crotch and dared me to grab it.”
In the checkout line at Sam's Club, the girl's mother made a beeline for school.
She was distraught and determined to hold this teacher accountable.
After talking to her daughter and administrators about the purported touching, the mother asked an assistant principal to call law enforcement authorities. The assistant principal declined, saying the matter would be referred to the district's Human Resources Department, per policy.
So the woman went home and called Child Protective Services. If she hadn't, it's unclear how long Shad Knutson would have remained at the school.
He had survived there for a year after two other students came forward with similar allegations. The first student to allege that she was abused was transferred to another school. The second was transferred out of Knutson's class.
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Monday's testimony revealed what Omaha Public Schools officials were told about Knutson's actions and when they were told, indicating that OPS missed opportunities to prevent additional incidents reported later by other students.
OPS officials, including Principal Susan Colvin, have defended their actions. They also have pointed out that the district has since changed its policies regarding reports of child abuse. Such reports now must be made to authorities within 24 hours.
The change was made after OPS officials came under fire over accusations that they didn't follow state law, which requires that a report be made to law enforcement or Child Protective Services within 24 hours of when anyone, including any school employee, “has reasonable cause to believe that a child has been subjected to child abuse or neglect.”
Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine considered charging the OPS employees involved for failing to comply with state law. He and Sarpy County Attorney Lee Polikov pressed the district to change its policy. Kleine said later that pursuing misdemeanor charges could have made the employees reluctant to testify in the Knutson case for fear of incriminating themselves.
While OPS still employed Knutson, district officials said they believed that they had to perform their own investigation to determine whether there was reasonable cause.
Administrators also acknowledged in court, however, that they had no training on how to perform such investigations.
One Human Resources administrator said he had no training in interviewing sexual abuse victims. His only training was in investigating claims of sexual harassment — between adults.
Testimony revealed one exception to OPS's former policy of waiting to report such matters: Hear a complaint about parental abuse? Call police. Immediately. Hear a complaint that a teacher had crossed the line? Call HR.
The former policy has put the district and, to a certain extent, prosecutors on the defensive during Knutson's trial in the past week. An attorney for OPS's insurance company has been sitting in court, taking notes on witness testimony in case any alleged victims file civil lawsuits.
And Douglas County Public Defender Tom Riley, whose client faces five felony charges, has highlighted the fact that prosecutors have brought charges against Knutson involving cases after the district investigated and imposed no discipline on Knutson.
Carrie Rath, an assistant principal at Hale, and other administrators noted in their testimony that OPS now reports such allegations within 24 hours.
“That policy has changed,” Rath said. “Now the first person in contact with a situation like that would contact CPS or the police.”
Back then? Not so much.
In the fall of 2009, Colvin had received complaints about Knutson. He once took a student's phone and playfully fired off a text message. That prompted administrators to remind him that teachers are not to do anything with students' cellphones after they've seized them.
In November and December 2009, Colvin received more serious complaints from two students.
The first girl to come forward — an overweight 13-year-old who had some disciplinary problems at school — listed a litany of offenses by Knutson. Over the course of the fall, she said, he prodded her to use her phone and take a picture of her breasts. She did. He urged her to flash him. She did. She said he touched her breasts over her clothing.
Later, she said, he told her to stand in a bathroom entryway and flash him during passing period. She testified that she did, while he watched from the hallway. She said he twice asked her for oral sex and once shoved his crotch into her face in an athletic equipment room.
Administrators' response? They met with the girl and her parents, had the girl write out a statement and sent the statement to Human Resources.
School administrators, including Colvin, believed that Human Resources investigators were following up on the first girl's serious allegations.
Human Resources didn't interview Knutson about the first girl's complaint, said Ed Virant, an HR administrator. In fact, Knutson was never told that the first complaint was made against him.
“There was no investigation in Human Resources in regards to (the first girl),” Virant said.
Colvin testified that she consulted with Virant and decided to transfer the girl to a different school.
After discussing the matter with Virant, Colvin said, she found the accounts of the bathroom-hallway flashing to be implausible. She said she had concerns about the girl's “demeanor” — Virant called it her “credibility.”
Colvin also had doubts about Knutson's ability not to be seen with the girl in the other “high-traffic” places where the girl said Knutson made sexual advances: the coach's office and the athletic equipment room.
Colvin said she sent the girl's parents a letter saying she was being reassigned to another school. After getting the letter, the girl's father was incredulous. He worked as a security officer at another OPS school.
He called Colvin, asking if the transfer could wait until the end of the semester.
Colvin said no.
The following month, on Dec. 16, 2009, a second girl came forward.
Like the first, this girl said Knutson had gone through the photos on her cellphone. Like the first, she had disciplinary problems at school.
The then-14-year-old said the teacher had pointed to her breasts in a photo and said, “I like these.” Later, she said, he wrote a Post-It note telling her he would give her a B on a test if she gave him a photo.
The 14-year-old girl reported those actions to administrators.
She was “upset, on the verge of tears, angry,” said Anthony Clark-Kaczmarek, then an assistant principal.
Colvin and another school employee searched Knutson's trash and recycling bins for the Post-It note. They couldn't find it. Instead, they found other notes that piqued Colvin's interest, including one that said: “You gonna let me feel?”
Colvin said she copied those notes and faxed them to HR.
Colvin said, however, that she never confronted Knutson about the Post-It notes or any of the allegations against him. The reason: HR didn't allow principals to do anything but collect statements from complaining students or witnesses, Colvin said. And HR made any disciplinary decisions concerning teachers.
Kleine challenged Colvin, saying she had written in a report that she didn't confront Knutson because she “didn't want to shake his confidence in being a teacher.”
“Some other things were going on with Mr. Knutson,” Colvin said, without elaborating. “It was decided not to” speak with him.
HR wrapped up its investigation into the second incident and took no action against Knutson.
After being placed on paid leave while the district investigated, he returned to his classroom.
The second girl was switched out of Knutson's social studies class.
After she complained, she said, she felt as if one school administrator was watching her every move. So she decided to go live with her father in Iowa and enroll in school there.
About that time, administrators caught Knutson grabbing a student's cellphone and using it to text the student's brother.
Clark-Kaczmarek recalled meeting Knutson in the school entryway.
“I put my arm around him,” Clark-Kaczmarek said. “I said, 'Shad, stop. You're putting yourself in a position you don't want to be in.' ”
Clark-Kaczmarek said he noticed a former student often hanging around Knutson in the hallway or in his classroom after school.
“A lot,” he said. “Too many times to count.”
Knutson told others that he was tutoring her. Prosecutors say he groomed her into a relationship that involved 25,000 phone contacts in a little over 10 months. That girl is expected to testify at the trial.
Clark-Kaczmarek said he “may have” talked to Knutson as a “colleague and friend” about being careful around the former student.
“I may have in a friendly manner said, 'What's that all about?' ” I don't think I ever formally told him to stop. I think I may have said, 'If you're going to have her near you, keep your door open, stay in the hallway.' ”
He said he didn't alert other administrators or HR. Colvin, the principal, said she wasn't aware that the former student was regularly returning.
Administrators did talk to Knutson about something else.
As athletic director, Clark-Kaczmarek oversaw Knutson's duties as the school's football coach. Clark-Kaczmarek said Knutson was good with his players.
“He was a very passionate coach, cared a lot about winning, cared a lot about kids,” he said.
On the second-to-last game that fall, Clark-Kaczmarek said, he felt as if Knutson's team had run up the score. He did something that OPS did not do after the first two girls lodged complaints about Knutson's behavior.
He suspended Knutson the coach.
Knutson the teacher stayed on the job for another year.
He wasn't removed until the Student Council member's mother called authorities in late October 2010.
By then, prosecutors allege, Knutson had two more victims.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1275, firstname.lastname@example.org