B.E. Area hires an investigator

BLUE EARTH — The Blue Earth Area School Board voted Monday to hire a third-party consultant to review the district’s disciplinary and investigative actions concerning four students involved in an alleged assault.

In October, the four students — Wyatt Tungland, Dalton Nagel, Blake Barnett and Caden Ochsendorf — reportedly assaulted a fellow student at a party in Winnebago, resulting in severe bruising and swelling to his face, as well as a concussion. Tungland, Barnett and Ochsendorf are charged with third-degree assault, and aiding and abetting third-degree assault, while Nagel is charged with aiding and abetting third-degree assault causing substantial bodily harm.

While those involved in the alleged assault have yet to face trial, they were suspended from school for 10 days in November, when an investigation took place within the district. They were also made ineligible to play or practice in sports, or be involved in leadership roles in school. Barnett and Ochsendorf have since transferred out of the district.

At the school board’s Jan. 8 meeting, many people, including two of the students’ parents, spoke up against the district’s disciplinary actions, saying the actions were too harsh, and that it was not up to the district to discipline the students based on an alleged incident that happened outside of school.

School board chairman Jesse Haugh said that because the district has been under fire based on the actions, it was suggested to bring in a third-party consultant, who will examine whether the district’s investigative and disciplinary process from Nov. 6 to Dec. 8 was compliant with the Minnesota State High School League.

The third-party consultant will be Michelle M. Soldo, attorney and investigator for Soldo Consulting. According to a letter by Soldo to Superintendent Evan Gough, Soldo has no prior professional or personal association with the district, nor has she had a role in the investigation. According to Soldo, the only knowledge she has on the law enforcement investigation of the alleged incident is two online news articles following a previous discussion with Gough.

School board members agreed that having a third-party consultant is an important step to help the district move on from the months of controversy.

“I just hope at some point we can move forward,” said board member Sheila Ripley. “I think we as a district really need some healing, we need kindness.”

Soldo gave a discounted rate of $145 per hour, plus mileage at the IRS rate, lodging costs if an overnight stay is required and copying and postage costs.

Board member Susan Benz said that although she has a hard time with the idea of spending money outside of the district, it’s time for the district and community to begin to heal.

“And if it would be for the betterment of that, I’m all for it,” she said.

Gough said Soldo can start by the end of the week, and that there is no established timeline as to when the investigation will be completed.

In other action, the board approved the audio recording of school board meetings.