The question for Sarah Norby, mother of three students at the St. Paul school where a former custodian allegedly behaved inappropriately with young boys, is why school officials apparently allowed the man to remain despite previous reports of misconduct and a reprimand from his supervisor.
“If you know an employee has a 2003 allegation, a 2003 insubordination report, a 2011 report, how is that individual still in a building with children?” Norby asked at a community meeting Monday evening. “That individual is still in a building with my children.”
Several dozen parents applauded after Norby asked the first pointed question of district officials who called a meeting at Linwood Monroe Arts Plus Elementary School.
Walter J. Happel, 62, of Newport, was charged last week in Ramsey County District Court with one count of surreptitious interference with privacy for allegedly peeking and smiling at a half-clothed 11-year-old boy in a bathroom stall at Linwood Monroe on Feb. 19.
After he was suspended on Feb. 20, authorities learned that he had kept a secret room at the school’s fourth- through eighth-grade campus where he stored intensifying gel, energy capsules and a bottle of testosterone. He retired March 4.
Norby has children at both campuses of the school, which did not inform parents about the Feb. 19 incident until the second week of March, a point of contention for several parents.
“I’m just waiting for someone to say, ‘Man, we really screwed up,’ ’’ said parent Mary Szondy. “Just take responsibility.”
School and police officials say they have connected Happel to six allegations of misconduct with children in St. Paul public schools, one at Roosevelt Elementary School and five at Linwood Monroe.
No charges have been filed in other cases, and police and the county attorney’s office have not said whether authorities are investigating school officials’ apparent failure to report allegations of inappropriate behavior and touching made against Happel in 2011.
Assistant Superintendent Christine Osorio told parents Monday the charges are a “terrible, terrible” situation, but said the district hopes to learn from it and improve threat assessment procedures, training for teachers and staff and its response to allegations of misconduct.
“First of all I want to say that things are going to be different,” she said Monday night.
Osorio said that the room Happel kept was a storage room that hadn’t been walked through recently. She said the district wants to ensure that all rooms are regularly inspected.
Other school officials told parents they planned to install security cameras at the school, and that the district is looking at instituting ongoing, recurring background checks for employees.
Laura Olson, the district’s director of security and emergency management, said the goal is to have all schools fitted with cameras and a buzz-in, secured main entrance by the end of summer 2014. About half of the schools already have that equipment, she said.
Like Szondy, however, many parents sought assurances that the district wouldn’t allow staff members with incidents of inappropriate behavior to continue working with students.
Shane Lucy, who has a student in Linwood Monroe’s pre-K program, said he would consider removing his son from the district if systemic problems allowed Happel to stay in schools.
“What system failed to allow this guy to continue being around kids?” Lucy asked. “I have to ask myself, ‘Where else did this happen?’ ”
Happel started working for St. Paul public schools in 1984, and has worked alongside children in schools as far back as 1986. In August 2003 he was transferred to Roosevelt, where he was disciplined for giving candy to students and a digital camera to a boy he allegedly met with in a school bathroom. He was warned that he could be fired for additional transgressions, but moved to Linwood in 2004 and remained until the February allegation.
In 2011, one student said Happel followed him into a bathroom regularly for a year. Happel allegedly shook his penis at the boy and spoke suggestively while the two stood next to each other at urinals. The boy’s mother alerted school staff. She reported the incident to police, according to charges in the 2014 case.
Another student said in 2011 that Happel swatted his buttocks and made a sexual comment. The incident was known to school officials but never reported to St. Paul police, the charges show. Happel was disciplined for the 2011 cases, but that was successfully grieved by the employees’ union and removed from his record.
Aniya Beckom told school officials Monday night that a Linwood Monroe teacher did not take her seriously when she reported an incident with Happel, saying the custodian had been with the school for years and wouldn’t hurt anyone.
“Nobody listened, and now another child is hurt because nobody listened,” Beckom said. “It was no investigation. They asked [Happel] a question, and he said no and denied it, and it was closed. If the school would’ve taken the proper steps, this wouldn’t have happened to another child, plain and simple.
“This happened because nobody cared.”