Editor’s note: The author is a 2020 graduate of Eden Prairie High School. She was a student in several of teacher Craig Hollenbeck’s classes.
Craig Hollenbeck was hired as a social studies teacher at Eden Prairie High School in 1998. Almost immediately, and for years to follow, he was beloved by his students.
But something changed. Students who had admired and even emulated the teacher were shocked in October when he was charged with gross misdemeanor child endangerment, for what is commonly known as child grooming.
Hollenbeck pleaded guilty to that charge on Dec. 16. He will be sentenced on March 6, 2023.
Hollenbeck’s representative and the Eden Prairie School District did not respond to requests to comment for this story.
The charge stemmed from an inappropriate relationship with a 17-year-old student during the 2020-21 school year.
The relationship was brought to school administrators by a mandated reporter. That complaint was the first one filed against Hollenbeck in his 24 years of teaching at EPHS. The student graduated from EPHS in 2021.
Beyond teaching social studies classes, he was very involved in the school, chaperoning student trips, coordinating student election volunteers, speaking at commencement ceremonies and advising several student clubs. Through all of these activities, Hollenbeck formed tight, trusting bonds with his students.
His former students describe him as an advocate, activist, icon, hero, feminist and beloved teacher in his classes. He was many graduates’ favorite teacher and left a lasting impression on his students.
Several students pursued teaching as a career because of him and say he had a large impact on their career path and life outlook. To them, that makes the charge against him even more disappointing.
“[Hollenbeck was] an amazing teacher for me personally, but also one of pedagogical inspiration,” 2017 graduate Abby Adams-Thomas said. “I wanted to be him. I would hope that if I could even be a fraction as amazing a teacher as he could, I would have made it in life. […] That helped make this really earth-shattering.”
The student reaction
When some alumni saw the headline about an EPHS teacher with an inappropriate relationship, they knew immediately it was Hollenbeck. Others were shocked to read his name. Though their initial reactions varied, students have been unified in feeling disappointed and betrayed.
The charge against Hollenbeck has prompted some students to rethink every interaction they had with Hollenbeck, while others say they have too many to even comprehend.
“I’ve just been going back in my memory, having to edit all these memories I have of him into being like, oh he, you know, groomed a child,” 2019 graduate Julianna Deibel said.
Thinking back on her time at EPHS, she recalls interactions that now raise questions, a sentiment shared by many of his former students.
“He would say some weird little thing and [I would] be like, ‘that didn’t feel totally like something that I would normally experience with a teacher. […] He must think I’m special or I’m just smart,’” Deibel said.
Students are struggling to separate the positive things he did with the allegation of child grooming. For many, his class was the first time they thought about life outside of what he called “the Eden Prairie bubble.” He encouraged students to be politically engaged and was the reason many people studied teaching, politics, policy and history in college.
Katherine Kregness, a 2022 graduate, said Hollenbeck was integral to her high school experience; most of her projects and activities from her junior and senior year are connected to Hollenbeck in some way.
“I have to go back and try to very consciously take him off of this pedestal and understand that I was valuing a person that I had built in my mind,” Kregness said. “I had taken from the cult of personality I saw when I came into school, the opinions of my peers who really valued him, and also what I thought he was from our interactions and all of that created a different person. And that’s just not really the reality.”
A tradition of trust
Though most students didn’t have Hollenbeck as a teacher until junior year, many knew of him earlier, from both his active Twitter presence and hearing about him from older siblings and friends.
“Everyone talked about [AP Political Science] and it was marketed as this life experience that will change you,” Adams-Thomas said. “The teachers were 90% of that experience when it was marketed to students.”
Deibel said Hollenbeck’s popularity started before they entered his classroom because of the reputation he had as a phenomenal teacher.
“You would trust him because you want him to like you. You want him to like you, so you would offer a lot of yourself and then he would respond to that in, seemingly, a positive way, building trust, and then that kind of opens up the relationship,” Deibel said. “You give him more and more power in your head because you like him and because he cares about you, seemingly.”
Kregness said that because relationships with Hollenbeck were passed down from trusted peers, it was difficult to see any warning signs for inappropriate student-teacher relationships.
2019 graduate Madison Hilligoss, whose two older sisters had Hollenbeck as a teacher, said, “A huge part of what enabled this behavior was because he was so beloved by so many people, so trusted by so many people, and for me, too, [that trust] goes back generations.”
Once students entered Hollenbeck’s classes, he became a trustworthy figure in many of their high school lives. He demonstrated an interest in their personal well-being, was understanding of mental health struggles and checked in on students when they were going through rough times.
Kregness said she never thought twice about any communication between her and Hollenbeck while she was in school. She felt that he was reaching out to her and communicating with her because she was special.
Looking back, these students didn’t know how widespread Hollenbeck’s private communications with students were, making them rethink how special their relationships could have been.
When they were still in high school, their trusting relationships didn’t allow them to see that receiving private messages from a teacher was inappropriate.
The safety of Room 122
In a city with a historically conservative population, the space Hollenbeck created in Room 122 was unique. He cultivated an inclusive class environment where he intentionally supported his students.
Room 122 was “a safe place for any student in a marginalized community, it felt like, and not even just a safe place, but a safe place for us to exist and to talk about those marginalized identities,” 2020 graduate Anna Frischmon said.
Hollenbeck’s outspoken, progressive political views were apparent on Twitter, and he lectured students on aspects of it in the classroom, a large portion of it being about feminism.
He frequently wore a black T-shirt with “FEMINIST AF” in bold, white lettering across the chest. During the #MeToo movement, he lectured his classes about consent. Deibel recalled him specifically calling out the boys, saying, “we are failing our girls.” These sidebars about sexism and advocacy for equal rights made his female students feel supported in his classroom.
“He made us feel like as women we had a voice and that we should be believed,” Frischmon said. “It’d be hard to question someone who was such a champion of women’s rights and feminism and believing women.”
His outspoken politics made the charge against him even more disappointing for his former students. Looking back, some students see the welcoming environment he created as a tactic he may have used to get close to students.
“He invited in a lot of kids that might have been more vulnerable to being targeted in other ways because he seemed like someone who was safe,” Deibel said. “I feel like he used people’s personal experiences to get closer to them.”
Throughout her high school career, Kregness worked on an LGBTQ+ inclusivity project and frequently went to Hollenbeck for advice and support. Looking back, she is wary about Hollenbeck’s role in the project.
“I feel like the work that we did with the Safe Schools Project and with everything that came out of that was incredibly valuable to the school. Knowing that he could have had and did have such a big part in that makes me really nervous about my own judgment and about what could have happened,” Kregness said. “On an even more personal level, [I feel] pretty blatantly betrayed.”
Many students who felt safe in Room 122 were strongly affected by the texts Hollenbeck sent to the student he allegedly groomed in 2021. In several messages, he talked about intimate moments he had with a student “in 122.” That specific phrase had a large impact on Frischmon.
“I’m pissed because Room 122 was the safe place for us in high school and it’s like, ‘Oh, how could we ever feel unsafe in Room 122?’ but then he literally abused that,” Frischmon said.
Shifting power dynamics
Many students say Hollenbeck was a school celebrity. Many students describe him as having a “cult of personality,” a term that 2020 graduate Shivani Pargal said most students learned in Hollenbeck’s classes.
“He had a lot of power in his class,” Deibel said. He had kids practically worshiping him, really, really wanting his validation. And I think he knew that.”
Many of his dedicated students jumped to his defense when rumors of inappropriate conduct started circulating in the school immediately following his resignation in 2021.
“I was defensive of him repeatedly, and all of my friends were,” Kregness said. “Everyone who was one of his students loved him a lot and was very defensive of him and always just discussed how much he had made a positive difference in their lives.”
Many students say Hollenbeck’s class was the first one in which they felt they were truly treated like adults, which helped to break down boundaries between teacher and student.
“He kind of put himself on our level and talked to us as peers and, on the face of it, looked like he was getting rid of the power dynamic but at the end of the day, he still is a teacher,” Pargal said. “He still is grading tests, setting lesson plans, doing things that shape our performance.”
Pargal said that the closer the class got to Hollenbeck, the more boundaries seemed to be an illusion.
“The [AP Political Science] environment was extremely conducive to a lot of competition, […] and it really behooved you to get close to the teachers because it made the experience better,” Adams-Thomas said. “You were rewarded in that class if you were closer to the teacher.”
Hollenbeck on Twitter
Outside of the classroom, Hollenbeck used Twitter as a way to stay connected with both current and former students. He grew his relationships with students by engaging with them both privately and publicly on Twitter.
“I’ve been thinking about how his social media presence was such a great thing in high school,” Adams-Thomas said. Looking back on it now, she sees it may have created too much closeness with students.
These public conversations with students extended beyond classroom topics. Students visited the activities, and restaurants Hollenbeck recommended in class and tweeted at him, often initiating an exchange outside of school hours on the platform. Some students planned their outings for the sole purpose of engaging with Hollenbeck about it on Twitter.
For 2022 graduate Vishwa Madhusudhanan, there are “red flags“ with Hollenbeck’s casual Twitter presence in retrospect.
“With Hollenbeck, you could talk about social issues or just any kind of issues on [Twitter],” Madhusudhanan said. “It’s clear that he was more than just a teacher on there.”
Hollenbeck’s Twitter presence isn’t new; it has been a core part of his teaching style for many years. Austin Evans, a 2013 graduate, said Twitter shaped Hollenbeck’s interactions with students, even though it was a new platform for most students at the time.
“We all figured out pretty quickly that if you interacted with [him]on Twitter you would get positive attention from him,” Evans said of his time in Hollenbeck’s class in 2011.
To many students, Hollenbeck encouraging them to follow him on Twitter wasn’t unusual; many social studies teachers use the platform to send reminders and information to students in their classes.
“I think because all the social studies teachers use Twitter, it was just the norm for that […] to not be a boundary,” Frischmon said. “I think the whole culture of that social studies department enabled him to take it farther.”
The social studies Twitter culture rewarded students for seeking likes, retweets and comments from teachers, though students say Hollenbeck took it the farthest. Many students recall receiving direct messages and seeing it as a badge of accomplishment at the time. Looking back, however, they see it as a boundary that was crossed.
Frischmon said that in school, students felt like “it’s totally cool to be DMing a teacher on Twitter because we’re equals and we’re mature and we’re adults.” She thinks that might have created a space for the inappropriate conduct that occurred.
Eden Prairie Schools has a policy relating to employee-student relationships. It says teachers “must be mindful of their inherent positions of authority and influence over students.”
Similarly, the EPHS Student Handbook says students are responsible for “being aware of school district policies regarding harassment and maintaining an environment free from harassment, intimidation and abuse.” It does not state what happens after a student reports an incident, who they should report incidents to or what responsibility staff has to respond to those reports.
Hollenbeck’s power within the school was built slowly over time, leaving most students and staff not questioning it as it evolved. Some former students think the adults could have and should have intervened sooner and that it was not the students’ responsibility to spot the boundary crossings.
“[Students] don’t know boundaries as well. They are still learning about boundaries,” 2021 graduate Jennifer Lee said. “Even if they think they know, they’re still learning.”
Sydney Lewis is a journalism student at the University of Missouri. She graduated from EPHS in 2020. At Mizzou, she is the general manager of Mizzou Student Media, a student innovation staffer at the Reynolds Journalism Institute and a journalism ambassador at the Missouri School of Journalism. Previously, she was a digital product intern at NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. She is passionate about community-centered journalism and wants to work with audience-facing news products after she graduates.
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