CHARGES: School leaders failed to report janitor touching boy - KMSP-TV

CHARGES: School leaders failed to report janitor touching boy

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Walter Happel Walter Happel
Beth Behnke Beth Behnke

Parents of students at Monroe Elementary School in St. Paul were shocked when a longtime janitor was arrested on peeping charges, but new court filings are sure to send more shockwaves through the community now that prosecutors say school leaders knew about the accusations for years and failed to tell police.

According to criminal charges filed Monday in Ramsey County, both Principal Beth Behnke and Assistant Principal Craig Guidry knew that Walter Happel had been accused of slapping a young boy's buttocks but never notified the St. Paul Police Department. Now, both are facing one count of failure to report the maltreatment of minors, a charge that carries a maximum sentence of 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

MORE: Charges say janitor peeked under stall, kept sex products in secret room

"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," Dakota County Attorney Jim Backstrom, who is overseeing the case due to a potential conflict of interest in Ramsey County, told Fox 9 News.

Backstrom explained that mandatory reporting requirements were met when Happel was accused of touching a student and telling the child that "people in prison get b/f if pants are sagged." Both the victim and the boy who witnessed the slap were interviewed about the ordeal while Behnke and Guidry were present, charging documents claim. The documents filed Monday further allege that Guidry told police he was aware of the mandatory reporter law, but said it was not his responsibility to report the alleged offense and that another school administrator would. No report was made until earlier this year when the peeking accusations surfaced.

Additionally, Backstrom intends to encourage the Minnesota Legislature to update the state's mandatory reporter law because other incidents involving Happel would not meet the legal criteria even though he is facing criminal charges of surreptitiously interfering with privacy of those students.

"Peeking into a bathroom stall is not an offense mandated to be reported under current Minnesota law," Backstrom said. "Such conduct is considered an invasion of privacy. The same is true of incidents of exposure."

Happel was arrested in March after he was placed on administrative leave and later resigned after several students accused him of commenting on his own exposed genitals during bathroom breaks and peering into occupied stalls -- but Fox 9 News later learned that he had been accused of inappropriate conduct involving students multiple times prior to the departure.

MORE: Janitor also gave candy, camera to student at 2nd school

Perhaps most disturbing of all are the allegations dating back to 1991, when a family member accused Happel of sexually abusing her for years starting when she was 6 and continuing until she was 12. Happel denied the accusation at the time, and no charges were filed due to a lack of evidence -- until May of this year, that is. After the allegations surfaced in St. Paul, other family members opened up to prosecutors to say Happel had sexually abused numerous children, including his own.

At the end of March, school leaders got an earful from parents who were outraged that Happel had been allowed to maintain his employment in the district despite the number of claims in his personnel file. These new charges seem to ensure that some serious discussions about the conduct of school leaders will begin anew. Behnke left the district last fall and is now listed as the principal of Falcon Heights Elementary School. Guidry, however, is still in the district and is working as an assistant principal at Jackson Elementary in St. Paul.

Both Behnke and Guidry were charged by summons. They are expected to appear in court to face the misdemeanor charges against them next month.

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