Two former administrators at Linwood Monroe Arts Plus school in St. Paul were charged Monday with failing to report allegations of child abuse. The charges stem from incidents involving former school janitor Walter Johann Happel, 62, who is facing criminal charges for sexual abuse and inappropriate behavior with minors over the last three decades.
Former principal Beth A. Behnke, 48, of Burnsville, and former assistant principal Craig A. Guidry, 52, of Arden Hills each face one misdemeanor for failing to pass on reports of accusations against Happel to law enforcement or social service agencies.
In interviews with police, both administrators said they were aware of allegations of abuse or inappropriate conduct by Happel. Guidry said he couldn't remember if police were notified when the allegations arose. He told police that he's aware of the mandatory reporting law that protects children, but that it wasn't his responsibility to report it because someone else in the school administration would.
Linwood Monroe Arts Plus educates students in grades K-3 and 4 -8 on two campuses.
Neither Guidry nor Behnke immediately responded to a request for comment.
The charges were drafted by the Dakota County Attorney's office to avoid a conflict of interest for the Office of the Ramsey County Attorney, which is prosecuting Happel and works closely with St. Paul Public Schools on a truancy program. The charges were filed in Ramsey County District Court.
Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said in a statement that the two administrators did not protect the health and safety of children in their care.
"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. "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."
School officials were told of concerns about Happel's inappropriate behavior numerous times before his arrest last March.
A student's mother told a school worker in late 2011 that Happel had exposed himself and made a crude comment to her son in a school restroom. She didn't receive any response from school officials and contacted police, according to the complaint.
St. Paul police investigators spoke to both Behnke and Guidry about the incident in early January 2012. Behnke confirmed that Guidry had told her about the incident and that the school's response had been to move the student's locker to another floor so contact with Happel would be minimal. At the time, Happel denied the allegation in a meeting with both administrators and the police officer.
School staff also expressed concern about Happel's behavior, including following students into bathrooms and giving students candy. Staff members told district staff in early 2012 that they'd told the school's administrators about their concerns.
The charges also said district employees interviewed a student on Jan. 17, 2012 who said Happel had slapped his buttocks. Another student said Happel routinely followed him into the restroom and appeared to watch as he used the facilities. Notes from district staff show that both Behnke and Guidry were present during the interviews.
Happel received a written reprimand on January 27, 2012, although that was reduced just months later to a "directive" under a grievance process, according to the charges. It wasn't until 2014 that a school social worker anonymously reported the incident where a student alleged that Happel had slapped him.
A spokesperson for St. Paul Public Schools said officials haven't yet had time to review the charges, but that the district has taken steps to train staff about mandatory reporting responsibilities since charges were filed against Happel.
Guidry's last position with the district was serving as assistant principal at Jackson Elementary. The district spokesperson said it's not clear whether he's employed in the same position this summer.
Behnke is listed as the principal of Falcon Heights Elementary in Roseville Area Schools. District staff did not immediately respond to a request for comment.