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St. Paul schools to change procedures after custodian's abuse charges

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Leaders of the St. Paul Public School district are putting in place some new procedures to deal with sexual abuse allegations in the wake of new assault charges filed against a former school custodian, according to the  St. Paul Pioneer Press.

The custodian, Walter Happel of Newport, was charged Tuesday with seven counts of sexual assault involving seven different victims. He's accused of assaulting two children in the 1980s, as well as for spying on and having sexual contact with boys at Linwood Monroe Arts Plus school, where he has worked for the past 10 years.

Happel, 62, had been charged in March with surreptitious interference with privacy in connection with an incident that occurred on Feb. 20 at Linwood. He was accused of looking at an 11-year-old boy, both under and over a bathroom stall door, as the boy used the toilet. Happel resigned in late February after that allegation came to light.

That case prompted others to come forward and accuse Happel of sexual misconduct spanning several years.

In a prepared statement Wednesday, school district Chief Executive Officer Michelle Walker said district leaders are sorry, "and feel terribly that this happened, though we know this is nothing compared to how our families feel."

Walker outlined several steps that will be implemented in St. Paul schools to address concerns about safety.

– While all licensed school administrators are required to understand their mandatory reporting obligations, the district has also reviewed these expectations with our leaders. In addition, retraining will occur twice yearly with all administrators and non-licensed staff.

– All principals now conduct a routine walk-through of every space in their buildings to ensure appropriate use of all areas.

– A new system has been established to tighten up responses to allegations of misconduct:

  •  Whenever alleged sexual or inappropriate contact is reported, administrators from different departments – including HR, security, and communications – quickly confer to review whether any past accusations exist. This process helps ensure that past history is not overlooked when schools and programs have experienced leadership changes over the course of years.
  • Extra scrutiny is required when thoroughly reviewing personnel files for any past accusations against employees any time new accusations are made.

– Finally, we are exploring the possibility of instituting periodic, recurring background checks of all employees. Unfortunately, a background check would not have shown Happel’s past accusations, so we are grateful to the brave students who came forward.

Investigators say Happel kept a secret space in a storage room in the school, where he kept "intensifying gel," energy capsules and a bottle of testosterone pills.

Happel had been suspected of having inappropriate contact with student for several years. After the peeping case came to light, parents questioned school officials about their handling of his case and asked why he was allowed to continue working in an elementary school. Walker did not address those questions Wednesday. Superintendent Valeria Silva has declined to comment on the case.

Happel appeared in court Wednesday on the most recent charges, and his bail was set at $245,000, MPR News reports.

Here's video of Michelle Stewart reading her prepared statement, courtesy of the St. Paul Pioneer Press:

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