In a recent decision, the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed a harassment restraining order sought by the Staples-Motley School District against Staples resident and area substitute teacher Dave Johnson, citing a lack of evidence.
“Finally,” Johnson said in response to the Court of Appeals decision. “It shouldn’t have even been brought to a hearing in the first place.”
The Staples-Motley School District filed a harassment restraining order against Johnson in January, alleging he threatened the school; publicly stated he had a hit list of names, including some affiliated with the school district; and claimed to have access to weapons.
Although Johnson vehemently denied all the allegations, Todd County Judge Timothy Churchwell granted a limited restraining order, which was in place until Aug. 1.
In his final opinion, Churchwell said he granted the limited restraining order on behalf of the school district because of Johnson’s evident struggles with mental health and his acknowledgment he wanted individuals held “accountable” for their actions and statements, which Churchwell wrote could be viewed as a threat.
Johnson denied struggling with mental illness at the time, admitting earlier this year he has seen a therapist in the past but had not seen her for several months as he felt he was in a positive place with his mental health.
The school district’s original petition requested the restraining order be in place until January 2021 and for Johnson to be prohibited from school property and any home or away school activities, or to have contact with district staff, students and volunteers. But because there was no physical evidence of Johnson’s alleged threats, Churchwell wrote it was hard to sort fact from hearsay and therefore granted a limited restraining order, barring Johnson only from school property until Aug. 1, 2019. The judge wrote he hoped the limited order would serve as a cooling off period due to the emotional nature of recent events.
On Nov. 18, Court of Appeals Judge Michelle Larkin issued a written opinion on behalf of herself and Judges Peter Reyes and Randall Slieter, reversing the restraining order. Even though the time limit had run out, Johnson’s attorney, Sam Edmunds, said Johnson’s goal was to vindicate himself. Now, Edmunds said it is as if the restraining order had never happened.
“I was not surprised by the court’s decision,” Edmunds said. “It was pretty obvious what they had to do.”
In her opinion, Larkin wrote the district court abused its discretion by issuing a restraining order on behalf of the school district based solely on unsworn oral remarks, as there were no witness testimonies or exhibits brought before the district court. A harassment restraining order, she wrote, must be based on testimony and documents properly admitted as evidence.
“It is clear as day,” Johnson said about the lack of evidence, adding the claims against him were bogus and made up.
“There needs to be legal accountability in place, as in legal accountability and justice for these individuals,” he said of those who made the initial claims.
Edmunds said no one from the school district showed up to the Court of Appeals oral argument in October to plead their case for the necessity of the restraining order.
In response to the Court of Appeals decision, Staples-Motley Superintendent Shane Tappe said the school district disagrees with the judge but will honor the decision and continue to monitor the situation.
Tappe joined the district in July and was not in the position when the original restraining order was filed. Though the original allegations against Johnson were serious in nature, at the time, Interim Superintendent Ron Bratlie said he believed there was no imminent danger to students, staff or volunteers of the school district. He added he did not see a reason to push the restraining order further after is expired.
But on Aug. 12 — 11 days after the restraining order expired — Johnson received a notice of trespass from the Todd County Sheriff’s Office after playing a pick-up basketball game at the school the day before. The notice was signed by Staples-Motley High School Principal Mike Schmidt, with Tappe carbon copied on the bottom. The notice stated Johnson was not to be on any property owned by the Staples-Motley School District before July 23, 2020. It referenced Minnesota Statute 609.605, Subdivision 4(d), which states it is a misdemeanor for a person to be found on school property within a year of being told by the school principal or the principal’s designee to leave the property and not return, unless given explicit permission from the principal. The notice further defines “school zone,” per Minnesota Statute 152.01, Subdivision 14a, as any property owned, leased or controlled by a school district or where extracurricular or co-curricular activities are provided.
When asked about the situation, Tappe, who said he was aware of the notice of trespass, requested questions be emailed to him. The Dispatch asked why the school did not provide any written statement or appear at the Court of Appeal oral argument, an explanation of the basis for the notice of trespass, the significance of the date July 23, 2020, and if there is any recourse a person can take if they feel they are being unfairly asked to leave school property.
After speaking with the school district’s legal counsel, Tappe provided the following statement via email: “I have been at the district now for four months and I am confident that our team takes student safety seriously. The decisions that have been made, have been made with team collaboration, and with the best interests of students and staff in mind. I believe that our threat assessment systems are working.”
Johnson, however, said he believes the notice of trespass represents a continuing effort on the part of the school district to further alienate him from his community and his two children.
Staples resident Paul Anderson also filed a harassment restraining order against Johnson in January, on the basis he was among those publicly threatened by Johnson. The Court of Appeals also overturned Anderson’s restraining order, which ended Aug. 1 as well. Anderson declined to comment on the issue.