The need for vigilance in protecting children from sexual abuse was again underscored by reports of abuse at Linwood Monroe Arts Plus school. St. Paul Public Schools custodian Walter Johann Happel, 62, was charged again Tuesday with seven counts of child sexual abuse. Prior to these allegations, Happel faced charges in March accusing him of peering into a bathroom stall at an 11-year-old student at Linwood. Happel resigned shortly after the March charges.
But while Happel’s actions (including sexual abuse of students, a neighborhood boy and a young relative) are objectively deplorable, the criminal complaints against Happel highlight what’s even more alarming about the incidents: the school district knew about some of the abuse but failed to report it to police. School administrators, teachers, and support staff are legally obligated to report allegations of sexual abuse involving minors within 24 hours. These individuals also have a legal and moral obligation to protect the vulnerable children entrusted to their care.
In response to the newest charges against Happel, school district chief executive officer Michelle Walker made a statement delineating several steps that the district would take to improve its response to allegations of childhood sexual abuse. Among these steps was the adoption of a new system to “tighten up responses” to alleged misconduct and the implementation of twice yearly retraining on reporting obligations.
Although the discussion of how the district could improve is a good first step, a dialogue concerning the creation of safe school environments should have begun long before Happel was afforded the opportunity to sexually abuse several students at Linwood. Still, dialogue must be accompanied by action in order to be effective. The law is simple and the school’s policy should be equally simple – report any suspicion of child abuse to law enforcement.