Ex-teaching assistant in St. Paul denies girls' allegations

  • Article by: NICOLE NORFLEET , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 27, 2014 - 9:25 PM

Police found Mark Cooper’s conduct with grade-school girls “inappropriate” but not criminal; he says none of it is true.

A former teaching assistant at a St. Paul school who was fired after an eighth-grade student said he sent her a naked photo of himself strongly denied the allegations Thursday, saying that he was never even interviewed by a police officer.

“What am I supposed to do when somebody is slandering me?” said Mark W. Cooper Jr., who was let go last month by the St. Paul School District only two weeks after he was hired as a special education teaching assistant at Linwood Monroe Arts Plus school.

Linwood Monroe is the same school where janitor Walter Happel is alleged to have peeked at an 11-year-old boy using a bathroom stall. Happel, 62, who was suspended and then retired, was charged last week with surreptitious interference with privacy.

St. Paul police investigated allegations concerning three female students and Cooper, 24, and concluded that his behavior was inappropriate and that it violated school policy but was not criminal.

No charges have been filed against Cooper, but the allegations were forwarded to the Minnesota Department of Education for a follow-up investigation.

In addition to his work as a teaching assistant, Cooper also coached a basketball skills camp for boys and girls after school and helped the boys’ basketball coaches, said Toya Stewart Downey, spokeswoman for St. Paul public schools. New teaching assistants are on probation for a year and can be discharged without an investigation within that probation period, she said.

About the time Cooper was fired, police were dispatched to Linwood Monroe on a student’s report that he was involved in an inappropriate Facebook conversation with an 11-year-old student. A staff member also reported seeing Cooper standing “very close” to the same girl in the school gym.

According to reports, police the next day were told that an eighth-grader had confided to a nurse that she had a Facebook relationship with Cooper and that he had invited her to use Snapchat to communicate with him. She said that he sent a naked photo of himself, but that she didn’t have the photo anymore.

The girl said that Cooper paid attention to her on a field trip and that he “made her feel special.” She said he made comments about her appearance and requested a revealing photo of her. She said that Cooper asked her to “find a secluded place where they could kiss” but that she hadn’t gone there.

Another student, identified as a special education student and considered vulnerable, said Cooper told her on Facebook that he wanted to see what she wore for pajamas and that he asked for a photo.

“Everything is false,” Cooper said Thursday. He said he has a corporate job along with training kids in basketball and coaching a summer team.

 

Nicole Norfleet • 612-673-4495

Twitter: @stribnorfleet

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