Former St. Paul principals charged for failing to report sexual misconduct
- Article by: Chao Xiong
- Star Tribune
- July 15, 2014 - 9:06 AM
Two St. Paul school officials were charged Monday with failing to report alleged sexual misconduct by a longtime custodian despite warnings from staff and students that he had followed students into bathrooms, exposed his genitals and slapped one boy’s buttocks.
Former Principal Beth A. Behnke and former assistant principal Craig A. Guidry were charged in Ramsey County District Court with one count each of misdemeanor failure to report the maltreatment of minors. Both were employed at the Linwood Monroe Arts Plus school during the 2011-2012 school year and allegedly failed to report a 2012 incident in which custodian Walter J. Happel is accused of smacking a boy’s buttocks in the lunchroom.
“Guidry stated he was aware of the mandated reporter law, but it was not his responsibility to report and that someone else in the school administration would,” according to charges against Guidry, who is now an assistant principal at St. Paul’s Jackson Elementary, earning a salary of $105,728.
Behnke, 48, of Burnsville, is listed as principal at Falcon Heights Elementary School on the Roseville Area Schools website, earning a salary of $118,329.
Guidry, 52, lives in Arden Hills.
Julie Schultz Brown, a St. Paul School District spokeswoman, said Monday that the district had not seen the charges and could not comment.
History of allegations
Happel’s alleged misbehavior was disrupted in February when an 11-year-old Linwood Monroe student reported that Happel had peeked at him in a bathroom stall. The incident led to revelations of other suspected sexual misconduct by Happel. It also led to renewed scrutiny of the school officials in two cases: a 2011 incident in which Happel is suspected of exposing his genitals to a boy in a bathroom, and a 2012 case in which Happel allegedly smacked a boy in the butt for wearing sagging pants.
Behnke and Guidry are charged in the 2012 case. The Dakota County attorney’s office reviewed and charged the cases due to a conflict of interest.
“The charges in these complaints involve the actual touching of the buttocks of a child, which should have caused these educators, given the history and circumstances of Mr. Happel’s behavior, to have reason to believe that this act was done for sexual purposes,” said Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom. According to Backstrom’s office, exposing oneself to a student is considered invasion of privacy and is not covered under the state’s mandatory reporting law.
‘Within 24 hours’
“Mandated reporters are required to file reports within 24 hours of their direct observations or indirect information they receive related to the neglect or sexual abuse of a child,” Backstrom said in a written statement.
“The responsibility to make such a report to the appropriate law enforcement agency or social services agency is not excused by the belief a mandated reporter may have that such a report will be filed by someone else in the organization’s hierarchy.”
He added, “Mandated reporter law charges are not very common.”
According to the complaint: St. Paul police were investigating the February incident when they reviewed Happel’s personnel file and discovered information about the 2012 smacking case.
On Jan. 17, 2012, a School District human resources employee interviewed the boy, who was struck, and a witness. Behnke and Guidry were in attendance.
“According to the student, while slapping him, Happel made a comment that ‘people in prison get [expletive] if pants are sagged,’ ” the charges said.
Reports of stalking
A review of his file also showed that district human resources employees interviewed school staff between Jan. 11 and 17, 2012, about Happel’s interactions with students.
“Staff members reported several instances of what they considered to be conduct on the part of Happel that caused them concern, including following students into the student bathroom, using the student bathroom while students were present, and giving candy to students,” according to the complaints. “In subsequent statements to police, some of the staff indicated they had told the school administration of their concerns.”
Charges also show that in December 2011, a student’s mother reported to police that Happel followed her son into the bathroom, exposed his genitals to the boy and said, “It’s a big thing.” The mother told police that she went to them after reporting it to the school and receiving no response for four weeks.
Happel, 62, of Newport, resigned from the district in late February. He is charged in eight cases in Ramsey County District Court. Six of his alleged victims are students at Linwood Monroe. Two others include a family friend and a relative Happel is suspected of abusing about 30 years ago.
Behnke and Guidry did not return messages seeking comment.
Staff writer Anthony Lonetree contributed to this report. Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 Twitter: @ChaoStrib
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