Angry parents want answers for custodian's misbehavior with children

  • Article by: CHAO XIONG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 25, 2014 - 11:17 AM

Previous incidents in 2011 were not reported to police by St. Paul schools.

 

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?’ ”

  • related content

  • Aniya Beckom, mother of a student at the school, reported an incident with the janitor in 2011. She expressed concern that the incident her child reported wasn’t taken seriously enough.

  • Shane Lucy asked a question at the forum. He was seated with his wife, Heather. They have a child in the preschool program at Linwood Arts.

  • Happel

  • Linwood Arts Principal Bryan Bass answered a question from a parent at the forum on Monday night. At left was Christine Osorio, an assistant superintendent in the St. Paul school district.

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