Teacher sex abuse cases expose 'flaw' in how Minnesota schools report misconduct

When a former teacher was charged with having sex with a student earlier this year, police records indicated he had already been fired from a St. Paul charter school.

But he wasn’t. 

Personnel records obtained by the FOX 9 investigators reveal Brandon Bunney was not actually terminated by the Hmong College Preparatory Academy.

Instead, his teaching contract was "rescinded" last May after a staff member alerted school leadership about boundary concerns with a student.

Had Bunney been terminated, the school would have been legally required to report him to the state teaching board that decides which teachers are allowed in a classroom.

But that didn’t happen because Bunney wasn’t technically fired.

Advocates for victims of sexual abuse say Bunney’s case is now exposing a flaw in the state’s mandated reporting requirements.

"There are so many loopholes that they just get around," said attorney Jeff Anderson, who has handled many high-profile abuse cases, including ones involving teachers.

When schools "rescind" or opt to "not renew" a contract instead of firing a teacher, Anderson says, it effectively buries past allegations.

"The peril is real," Anderson said. "Until they’re held accountable for the mistakes they made in the past, all the kids in Minnesota are at risk."

Bunney’s Behavior

Hmong College Prep Academy started tracking Bunney’s behavior and reported him to police in March 2023. St. Paul Police declined to investigate at the time because the allegations weren’t criminal in nature.

The school still formally warned Bunney that "inappropriate interactions and relationship with a student," would result in his termination.

Bunney continued to raise concerns, according to school records.

In one internal email, a staff member alerted the principal that "students were uncomfortable… which made me uncomfortable."

Despite previously threatening termination, the school decided to "rescind" Bunney’s contract instead.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Hmong College Preparatory Academy defended that decision.

"In this case, none of (the) crimes that are alleged happened while the former teacher was employed by HCPA. At every step, our school took the steps to protect the student and hold the teacher accountable."

However, the school confirmed it did not report Bunney’s behavior to the teaching board.

A gray area

Minnesota’s Professional Educators Licensing and Standards Board (PELSB) investigates teachers reported for misconduct and can suspend or revoke their license.

Under state law, schools must alert the board when a teacher is terminated, suspended, placed on leave, or resigns while under investigation for misconduct.

The law does not say what is required if a teacher’s contract is "rescinded" or not renewed.

"Where there’s grayer areas, or maybe they seek clarity from their counsel, ultimately we don’t have control over what their decision is," said PELSB Executive Director Yelena Bailey, adding that most schools rely on recommendations from their own legal counsel.

Bailey said while the law could be more clear, reporting teachers accused of misconduct "is both the moral obligation and the right thing to do."  

‘I think the system has failed kids before’

A previous abuse case highlights the risk of not reporting alleged teacher misconduct. 

Aaron Hjermstad abused several young boys while working as a teacher and youth basketball coach.

He was first investigated back in 2015 after a student at Excell Academy reported that Hjermstad sexually assaulted him during a sleepover at the teacher’s home.

The school reported the allegations to police but Hjermstad was not charged at the time.

Excell Academy chose to "not renew" his contract. Court records detailing the school’s response to the allegations made no mention that Hjermstad was reported to the teaching board. 

"That means just pass them on, keep it quiet, avoid having to report to the board," said Anderson, who represents Hjermstad’s victims. "As a result, the problem persists."

After Hjermstad left Excell Academy, his teaching contract was renewed, and he was quickly hired by another school.

Excell Academy did not respond to requests for comment. 

"It makes absolutely zero sense to me that a school would try and brush something like that under the rug," said Jacob Tighe.

Tighe was sexually abused by his middle school teacher in an unrelated case and is now an advocate for survivors of abuse.

"I think the system has failed kids before," Tighe said. "I think it will fail them again."

In 2021, Hjermstad was convicted of sexually abusing children in both schools over several years.

No Integrity

In both the Hjermstad and Bunney cases, it was ultimately left up to the schools to decide whether to report the teachers to the board.

"If something isn’t reported to us, unfortunately, we find out the way any other member of the public does," said PELSB director Bailey. "That is, I think, the flaw."

Hmong College Prep did not explain its decision not to report Brandon Bunney to the teaching board. 

In a statement, the school only said it will "continue to follow guidance from law enforcement and legal counsel."

Regardless of what the law requires, Tighe said schools "absolutely" have a responsibility to say something.

"I would respect the hell out of a school for doing that rather than saying… we’re not going to fire, we’re just going to let him quietly leave," Tighe said. "There’s no integrity in that."