The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

June 23, 2014

Dakota County attorney investigating district

ST. PAUL (AP) — The Dakota County Attorney's Office is looking into whether St. Paul school district staffers broke the law by not reporting allegations against a custodian now charged with sexual misconduct.

Walter Happel is accused of peering at a student in a bathroom stall at Linwood Monroe Arts Plus school in February. The 62-year-old faces a total of eight sets of sexual misconduct charges, some stemming from earlier school incidents.

The district investigated in 2012, when a student complained the custodian had slapped him on the buttocks, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press. It concluded that was not child maltreatment and did not contact police, noting that the custodian had not raised red flags for years. Weeks earlier, though, a police officer had checked on a different complaint against Happel.

Minnesota's mandatory reporting law requires school employees to contact authorities within 24 hours when they know or have "reason to believe" a child was physically or sexually abused.

School and district officials "didn't report the touching on a student's behind because when the investigation concluded, it was determined it wasn't viewed as maltreatment," the district said.

Human resources director Laurin Cathey, who joined the district last year, acknowledged that an internal investigation does not suspend staff's obligation to report suspected abuse. He said he is not sure why employees did not do that. But he pointed out that Happel had not been in any trouble for a long time.

"There was a connection of dots, but there were eight years between 2003 and 2011," Cathey said.

The district also noted school staffers are required to report incidents to a central district emergency call center. The district then follows up and contacts police if necessary.

Happel's attorney declined to comment. Happel has not yet entered pleas in the sexual misconduct cases.

The district is not conducting an internal investigation into how staff handled the allegations, but Cathey said it is fully cooperating with authorities.

After the Happel charges, the district announced new policies to improve its response to alleged misconduct. It is also looking into recurring background checks for all employees and a refresher course on reporting requirements for principals twice a year.

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