Falcon Heights Elementary principal faces criminal charges


Beth Behnke

Dakota County Attorney alleges Behnke failed to report suspected abuse at St. Paul school in 2012

 
Beth Behnke, current principal at Falcon Heights Elementary School, has been named as one of two St. Paul Public School District administrators who allegedly failed to report sexual abuse of a student by Walter Happel, a former janitor at Linwood Monroe Arts Plus in St. Paul.
 
Behnke was the principal of Linwood Monroe, a pre-K-8 school, when the alleged abuse was first brought to school administrators' attention in 2011. Behnke, 48, took the reins at Falcon Heights in July 2013.
 
She faces a misdemeanor charge in a case being prosecuted by the Dakota County Attorney's office.
 
Charges against Happel
 
A total of eight cases of sexual misconduct involving minors have been filed against Happel in Ramsey County District Court.
 
One of those cases involves a Linwood Monroe student who told a school human resource employee Happel had allegedly "slapped him on the butt" in the lunchroom, an account reportedly corroborated by another student who witnessed the incident. 
 
According to the complaint, the student said Happel had made a comment that "people in prison get b/f if pants are sagged." This incident was later deemed sexual abuse in a report filed by a school social worker in March 2014.
 
Additionally, Happel allegedly followed a male Linwood Monroe student into the bathroom in December 2011 and made suggestive comments about his genitals while using the urinal. According to the complaint, the student's mother called police four weeks after bringing the incident to the attention of the school because she never heard back from administrators.
 
The complaint alleges that other students reported Happel watched them while they used the bathroom. According to the complaint, Happel allegedly told the school in January 2012 during an "investigative meeting" that "on occasion" he looked over or under a stall to see if it was occupied.
 
Happel resigned in February after a student reported he had allegedly peeked through a bathroom stall at him.
 
Failure to report abuse
 
Records indicate Behnke and assistant principal Craig Guidry, 52, of Arden Hills were present at several meetings during which Happel's misconduct was discussed, including a discussion of the butt-slapping incident.
 
As an educator, Behnke is mandated by law to report neglect and physical or sexual abuse of minors, even if only suspected, to law enforcement or the appropriate social services agency within 24 hours of learning about it.
 
The complaint states Guidry allegedly told investigators "he was aware of the mandated reporter law, but it was not his responsibility ... and that someone else in school administration would."
 
The St. Paul Public School District has reportedly opened an internal investigation into Guidry's involvement. He is currently the assistant principal at Jackson Elementary, which is part of the St. Paul district. A letter was reportedly sent to Jackson Elementary families addressing the charges against Guidry.
 
The charges against Guidry and Behnke were drafted by the Dakota County Attorney's Office to avoid a conflict of interest because the Ramsey County Attorney's Office is prosecuting Happel. Guidry and Behnke will likely be called upon to testify as witnesses in that trial, according to a statement from Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom.
 
Parents seek response from ISD 623
 
A statement from the Roseville Area School District says it is "aware of the pending matter" and "it would not be appropriate nor does the Minnesota Government Data Practice Act allow comment or speculation on the outcome of the matter."
 
Behnke declined to comment.
 
An anonymous caller told the Review some parents of Falcon Heights Elementary students "are pretty upset right now."
"A lot of us parents have talked to the superintendent [Dr. John Thein] and he has said it's a safe school and everything...[but] to date, the superintendent hasn't communicated with all the parents nor has he sent a single thing to us," the caller said.
 
"It's a bad situation," the caller added, saying that some hoped the Roseville Area School Board would address the issue at its Aug. 19 meeting.
 
Behnke and Guidry are both charged with misdemeanor failure to report the maltreatment of minors. They are set to appear in court for a pre-trial hearing on Sept. 8. If convicted, either would face a maximum sentence of 90 days in prison and/or a $1,000 fine.
 
Johanna Holub can be reached at jholub@lillienews.com or 651-748-7813. Follow her on Twitter @jholubnews.
 

What is a mandated reporter?

According to Minnesota law, "mandated reporters" by the nature of their jobs must report suspected physical abuse, sexual abuse or neglect of a minor to child protection or law enforcement. The list includes school administrators, staff and support staff, as well as medical workers, psychiatric counselors, clergy and others who work with children.
 
The statute, 626.556, specifies that mandated reporters who "know or have reason to know" about abuse or neglect must pass information on directly to law enforcement or protective services within 24 hours.
 
The law provides civil and criminal liability immunity to anyone "acting in good faith" by reporting abuse or neglect, and protects mandated reporters from retaliation from their employers.
 
It specifies that legal immunity doesn't cover mandated reporters' failure to report to the right agency, and lays out charges from misdemeanor to felony level for that failure. 

 

 

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