As St. Paul’s custodian case proceeds, prosecutor says the mandatory reporter law should be broadened.
Authorities don’t expect to file charges against additional St. Paul school staff members who apparently knew of alleged misconduct between a custodian and students but didn’t report it to police.
Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said Tuesday that “a number” of district employees were aware of and concerned about Walter J. Happel’s alleged behavior at Linwood Monroe Arts Plus school. But, he said, former Principal Beth A. Behnke and Assistant Principal Craig A. Guidry had the most complete knowledge of his behavior, which held them accountable for reporting Happel’s alleged smacking of a student’s buttocks in January 2012.
“There is a reason to believe this act was done for sexual purposes when you look at the entire history of Mr. Happel’s past behavior,” Backstrom said. “The administrators had access to all of those reports based upon the evidence that’s been gathered.”
Behnke, 48, of Burnsville, and Guidry, 52, of Arden Hills, were charged Monday in Ramsey County District Court with one count each of misdemeanor failure to report the maltreatment of minors, a rarely charged crime in Minnesota and one with a low conviction rate.
Backstrom’s office reviewed and charged the cases due to a conflict of interest.
Other staff members may have known about isolated incidents, but they didn’t have the complete picture to suspect that Happel’s behavior rose to a mandatory reporting threshold, Backstrom said. Complicating the charging issue, he added, is that some of Happel’s alleged misconduct — following boys into bathrooms, exposing his genitals to a student, giving out candy — does not fall under the purview of Minnesota’s mandatory reporting law.
Charges against Behnke and Guidry show that members of the school human resources staff were also aware of the allegations against Happel. But Backstrom said the law does not consider them mandatory reporters.
The law requires people such as educators and clergy members to report suspected neglect and physical or sexual abuse within 24 hours of learning of it.
Much of Happel’s alleged conduct is deemed invasion of privacy, falling outside the law’s scope, Backstrom said. That doesn’t sit well with Backstrom, who regularly sends out a guide to mandated reporters in his county.
“I think [Happel’s other alleged behavior] should be subject to the mandatory reporting law, and those deficiencies should be addressed by the Minnesota Legislature,” Backstrom said.
Rep. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park, said he’s interested in having that discussion. Schoen, concerned about youth violence on school grounds, authored a bill in 2014 that would have required schools to report violent offenses to police. It did not get a hearing. “We need to open the books on this and see where we are failing in protecting our students in our schools,” Schoen said.
Happel began working for the St. Paul School District in 1984 and resigned in February after an 11-year-old boy accused him of peeking at him in a bathroom stall.
The incident led Ramsey County authorities to charge Happel in eight cases, six of which involved students at Linwood Monroe. He allegedly pressed his genitals onto one student’s buttocks at the pre-K-8 school. He is also charged with sexually assaulting a family friend and relative.
It also led to an investigation of Behnke’s and Guidry’s actions. Failing to report the maltreatment of minor carries a maximum sentence of 90 days in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.
Records from the state court administrator’s office show that defendants convicted of that crime in the last 14 years have faced less severe consequences.
Not counting the charges against Behnke and Guidry, prosecutors have charged the crime 22 times in Minnesota between 2000 and July 2014. Nine of those cases — about 40 percent — resulted in convictions. None of the defendants served jail time, instead paying fines and fees ranging from $135 to $500.
Backstrom believes the charging and conviction numbers don’t reflect how many cases go unreported.