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No clue of sex charges in accused teacher's evaluation

James Whalen

GRAND FORKS -- When a Grand Forks Central High School teacher was arrested and charged earlier this month with having a sexual relationship with a student, it came as a shock to some.

Evaluations dating back nearly two decades for biology teacher James Patrick Whalen paint him as a beloved, praised teacher.

The 41-year-old resigned from the high school March 1 and was charged with two felony charges of corruption or solicitation of minors. According to court records, Whalen is accused of having a sexual relationship with a student who is older than 15 but still a minor between Nov. 14, 2015, and Feb. 22.

When the accusations came to light, he sent an email Feb. 23 to Principal Buck Kasowski and Associate Principal Gabe Dahl:

"There are so many things to say, but for right now ...," he wrote.

"Over the past 18 years I have given my heart and soul to this place, almost always putting more in than I receive back. I am now praying that I can receive back.

"I don't know if this is appropriate for me to write, but I am praying that I can keep a job in some capacity or another. If that means taking a year-plus leave, a completely different position, transferring to another school etc. ... something, anything. Yes, I understand the extreme seriousness of this, but I also understand that we are human beings with livelihoods at stake.

"You know me and who I am, and I ask that those merits will have some influence on how this plays out. I pray that we can approach this situation as its own circumstances and not as a general blanket event. You know I would do anything, and any help/support I can get would be appreciated.

"Please consider and convey this message as you see fit."

Evaluations

Year after year, Whalen's evaluations labeled him as a "role model" and "student favorite," establishing "excellent rapport with (past and current) students," according to past evaluations.

"There has never been a question about whether or not you have intensity and enthusiasm for teaching," Kasowski wrote in his 2013 evaluation. "You can hardly step foot in the school in the morning without students approaching you and starting a conversation. This is a testimonial to you and your passion for teaching and in particular the area of science."

The year before, Kasowski noted, "Whalen is one of the best teachers I have had the privilege of watching over in my years as an administrator."

Whalen's evaluation in 2010 reads, "He is a student favorite because he has a great sense of humor and has the ability to make students work harder and to achieve more than they think possible. ... Mr Whalen is able to find the balance between allowing students to have fun in the class and learning the material. He was born to be a teacher."

Six years earlier, an evaluation said, "Whalen is such an outstanding teacher that I wanted to stay in his room and watch another class period. ... You would be hard pressed to find a better instructor than Mr. Whalen."

He's praised for his teaching style, in addition to his roles outside the classroom.

In mid-February, Whalen sent an email to school staff, praising how the school's Science Bowl teams did in Bismarck this year, with one of the teams coming in third place. A reply email noted, "The success is attributed to good leadership!"

In his time at Central, Whalen helped with the KVLY High School Challenge, driver's education class, science clubs, chaperoning dances and emceeing student assemblies.

Court case

Despite Whalen's reputation as an inspiring teacher, court documents filed this month detail his alleged relationship with the student.

Whalen was charged with one Class B felony count that accuses him of engaging in a sexual act with a minor student in rooms at Central High School, while the Class C felony accuses him of having sex with her last month at his Grand Forks home. Interviews with Whalen and the victim also indicate there were other encounters in Whalen's green Ford Expedition, in which Whalen kept pillows and blankets, on rural roads in Grand Forks and Polk counties, including near Kellys Slough and English Coulee, according to court records.

Police have since been searching Whalen's vehicle and iPhone, court records show. An affidavit alleges Whalen sent the student a series of text messages "that were inappropriate and sexual in nature."

Even if Whalen was portrayed as a beloved teacher in his evaluations, it's important to remember the implications of the charges and to not victim blame, Laura Frisch, director of advocacy and empowerment at Community Violence Intervention Center in Grand Forks, said.

"Teachers are authority figures, first and foremost," Frisch said. "Teenagers are not on an equal playing field with them."

Andrea Clemens, author of the book "Invisible Target: Breaking the Cycle of Educator Sexual Abuse," was sexually abused by a popular science teacher when she was in high school.

"It's hard to believe a wonderful teacher could be capable of these things because of their reputation," Clemens said in an interview earlier this month. "A vast majority of teachers are great. But there's that small number."

Whalen turned himself in to jail early March 4 and made his first court appearance a few hours later, where he was ordered to have no contact with the victim.

He posted bond the same day, and now Whalen waits for his next court appearance May 9. He was originally supposed to have his next hearing in April, but it was pushed back due to scheduling conflicts, according to court records. If Whalen goes to trial it wouldn't be until September.

Whalen's case was reviewed by the North Dakota Education Standards and Practices Board at its March 10 meeting, but the board usually waits to make a decision until a criminal case is complete, Janet Welk, executive director, said.

Whalen faces a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison and $30,000 fine.

Becky Jacobs

Becky Jacobs is the crime and courts reporter for the Herald.

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