School administrators charged for not reporting staffer's sexual misconduct

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Two top school administrators have been charged with failing to report a custodian's alleged sexual misconduct against a student at a St. Paul elementary school despite warnings that he was behaving inappropriately, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reports.

Former principal Beth Behnke and former assistant principal Craig Guidry were working at Linwood Monroe Arts Plus school in 2012, when custodian Walter Happel allegedly hit a boy on the buttocks in the lunchroom. They each are charged with one misdemeanor count of failure to report maltreatment of a minor under the state's mandatory reporting law.

Happel, 62, was a longtime custodian at the school until he resigned earlier this year and was charged with eight counts of sexual misconduct for allegedly peeping at students using the school bathroom, exposing his genitals to a boy and sexually abusing young relatives.

Minnesota's mandatory reporting law requires people in a variety of occupations, such as educators, health care workers, social workers and clergy to inform police within 24 hours if they suspect a child is the victim of abuse or neglect.

“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 in a statement Monday.

“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,” said the charges against Guidry, according to the Star Tribune.

The law specifically addresses that claim:

If you suspect a child is being abused or neglected, you cannot shift the responsibility of reporting to a supervisor, or to someone else in the office, school, clinic or licensed facility. You alone are required to make the report to the responsible agency.

Backstrom said prosecuting people for violations of this law is not very common.

The Dakota County attorney's office is handling these cases due to a conflict of interest for the Ramsey County attorney's office.

A spokeswoman for the St. Paul school district said officials there had not seen the charges and would not comment. Neither Behnke nor Guidry could be reached for comment, according to the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press.

Behnke, 48, is now principal at Falcon Heights Elementary School in the Roseville district. Guidry, 52, is assistant principal at Jackson Preparatory Magnet School in St. Paul.

Parents of students at Linwood questioned school officials after Happel was arrested, wondering why he was allowed to work around children for so long when there were suspicions about his behavior. The case also prompted the St. Paul School District to change its procedures for dealing with allegations of misconduct by school staff.

Happel, of Newport, has pleaded not guilty to the charges filed against him.

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