Speaking up for accused teacher

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We were all aghast when the story spread like fire across Idaho and beyond: A teacher was accused of having sex with a student. It was a gut punch to her friends, family and supporters, and to the thousands of former students with whom she has interacted. Regardless of the outcome, she’d be ruined; who would remember the truth over the tabloid treatment?

Obviously any educator, coach, administrator, custodian, bus driver, etc. ought to be punished severely if they commit an act against children. It’s beyond abhorrent that this occurs and I think I speak for all the educational community in saying that we take safeguarding our children very seriously, even as we acknowledge that we can all do more and that incidences of abuse are actually quite rare. However, there must also be a thorough, objective and appropriate investigation, which is sensitive to the victim’s privacy, as well as the accused.

In my lifetime, I’ve experienced numerous sexual assaults but only reported one — I was a sixth-grader assaulted by a gang of boys — and cringe at the way it was handled: I felt like the one at fault and no one intervened. So I get that we always have to err on the side of caution and that the burden is going to be on the adult. All of us are part of a judicial system that aspires to the highest standards.

Yet, it remains to be seen whether those standards were met here. Having followed this from the onset, I’ve held my tongue, even when the accuser was involved in legal issues subsequent to his sexual confession (to school staff in front of a female student). I was quiet when his considerable behavioral issues went unreported in the interest of maintaining privacy (a policy I understand and generally support, except where it’s manipulated as it was here). I was silent listening to the accuser’s testimony of how he pursued the teacher — having sex with a teacher was on his bucket list — but couldn’t remember the date “it” actually happened until he was reminded of a recent doctor visit for treatment of an STD that he would willfully have exposed the teacher to.

Except they didn’t have sex. She didn’t pick him up and bring him to her place because the messaging he said occurred did not occur, could not be proven, and conveniently could not be traced. He could not produce any calls, texts, or Facebook messages. The kissing incident the student bragged about? It was investigated; the teacher was cleared.

What did happen? The teacher educated the student who, by all accounts, found rare success in her program. He’s now 18 and going about his merry life with absolutely no consequences for his actions.

And for that, she was punished, not through the court system, but in the court of public opinion. Doesn’t the news media help in the public exoneration of the accused with as much rigor as with which they pursued the initial story? Not always.

So for the record: Nichole Noel Thiel (sounds like teal) was declared innocent Oct. 12 by a jury of her peers. We all waited for the headlines exclaiming this teacher’s innocence, not only in her hometown of Coeur d’Alene, but also in Sandpoint where the trial occurred. For the dozens of media outlets that picked up the initial story, but let us all down by not following up, and for the folks who were quick to judge but slower to forgive, this is for you.

My letter attempts to restore the balance of justice for someone I’m proud to call my friend and colleague. I couldn’t stay silent any longer.

•••

Carrie Scozzaro is a Coeur d’Alene resident.

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