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Walter J. Happel, 62.

Ramsey County jail,

“We are sorry and feel terribly ... though we know this is nothing compared to how our families feel.” St. Paul School District CEO Michelle Walker

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Failure to report abuse is focus of St. Paul school probe

  • Article by: CHAO XIONG
  • Star Tribune
  • May 22, 2014 - 5:22 AM

The apparent failure of St. Paul school officials to report incidents of alleged sexual misconduct by a school custodian is under review by Dakota County authorities.

Walter J. Happel, who resigned as janitor at Linwood Monroe Arts Plus school in late February, now faces eight charges of sexual misconduct, most of which involve inappropriate behavior with students. Six of his alleged victims are students at Linwood Monroe, including a boy who told staff in 2011 that Happel followed him into a bathroom and shook his penis at the boy. A second boy told staff in 2012 that Happel slapped his buttocks.

School employees failed to report those two cases to police, according to information in several complaints filed against Happel. It wasn’t until another student told staff in February that Happel peeked at him in a bathroom stall that the older cases and the district’s handling of them were scrutinized.

The school reported the February incident to police.

At a news conference Wednesday, school officials promised to make changes and said they are taking steps to revise the district’s reporting and communication practices.

“Our schools are meant to be a safe place for all learners,” said district CEO Michelle Walker. “We are sorry and feel terribly that this happened, though we know this is nothing compared to how our families feel.”

The Ramsey County attorney’s office asked Dakota County to review the district’s response to Happel’s conduct due to a conflict of interest, said Ramsey County attorney spokesman Dennis Gerhardstein.

It’s unclear when a charging decision might be reached or how many employees have been investigated.

“We’re reviewing stuff as we receive it,” said Monica Jensen, a spokeswoman for the Dakota County attorney’s office. “Not everything’s come in.”

Mandated reporters are teachers and assistants, school administrators and school support staff members who by law are required to make a report if they believe a child has been abused or neglected.

Happel, 62, of Newport, was charged in March for the February incident, prompting more alleged victims to step forward and leading to the filing of seven additional cases against him Tuesday.

According to the complaints: Happel regularly followed students into bathrooms at Linwood Monroe and looked at their genitals. In 2010, he allegedly pressed his penis into one boy’s buttocks.

That boy, now 17, is the same boy whose 2012 complaint to a teacher and the school social worker’s office went unreported to police.

In the 2011 case where Happel followed a boy into a restroom and shook his penis at him, the boy and his mother reported Happel’s behavior to staff.

The boy’s mother alerted police when staff failed to do so.

When police asked the principal in early 2012 about Happel, “The principal said they have never had a problem with Happel before, nor had similar allegations been made against him,” according to the criminal charges.

But Happel’s personnel file shows that in 2003 he was reprimanded by his supervisor for giving candy to children at Roosevelt Elementary and a digital camera to a boy he allegedly met with in a bathroom.

He ignored orders to stop the behavior, the letter said.

Nine months later Happel was working at Linwood Monroe.

District outlines new steps

At the news conference Wednesday, shortly after Happel made a court appearance on the new charges, Walker said the district was “very concerned and disturbed” by the allegations against him.

She said that in response to what has happened, the district is now taking steps to ensure that all licensed and nonlicensed employees participate in training twice a year to make sure they understand their mandatory reporting obligations.

Because Happel allegedly kept a secret room at Linwood Monroe, district principals also have begun regularly walking through all the spaces in their buildings.

Walker read from a prepared statement, and did not field questions from reporters afterward. Superintendent Valeria Silva, who has declined to speak publicly about the case, did not attend the news conference.

The district’s response has frustrated some, including David and Denise Wickiser, who have a son and daughter at Linwood Monroe and who believe the district hasn’t effectively communicated with parents.

Denise Wickiser said she received a recorded call from the school’s principal at 4 p.m. Wednesday notifying her that a letter was on the school’s website and would also be e-mailed.

The Wickisers said they love their school, principal and teachers, and hope the district will deliver on its promises.

“I see this as a districtwide issue, not a school-specific issue, as this guy seemed to have been passed around after the past complaints,” Denise Wickiser said.

Happel started in the district in 1984, and resigned effective March 4.

The district paid $17,846 in severance to his retirement account for unused sick and vacation time.

 

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 Twitter: @ChaoStrib

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