Charges against Falcon Heights Elementary principal dismissed

Beth Behnke
Beth Behnke

Judge says Behnke had ‘no reason to believe’ 2012 incident at St. Paul school was sexual

Charges alleging that two former administrators at a St. Paul school failed to report sexual abuse in 2012 were dismissed on Friday, Dec. 5.

Citing a lack of probable cause, Ramsey County Judge Leonardo Castro dismissed the case against the former principal of Linwood Monroe Arts Plus, Beth Behnke, and the former assistant principal, Craig Guidry.

Behnke, 48, is currently the principal of Falcon Heights Elementary School in the Roseville school district and has been in the position since July 2013. Guidry, 52, still works in the St. Paul Public School District.

As educators, both are mandated by state law to report sexual abuse to authorities within 24 hours of its discovery.

The January 2012 incident that brought the two administrators to court on misdemeanor charges in August 2014 took place in the Linwod Monroe lunchroom. Walter Happel, a school janitor, reportedly slapped a male student’s rear end for wearing sagging pants.

Happel has since been charged with eight different counts of criminal sexual misconduct relating to minors, one of which allegedly took place at Linwood Monroe. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

‘Insufficient probable cause’

Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom drafted the charges against Behnke and Guidry to avoid a conflict of interest because the two would likely be brought up as witnesses against Happel in cases Ramsey County Attorney John Choi is bringing against him.

The charges, filed in August, alleged that Behnke and Guidry knew about the incident and failed to report it as sexual abuse to law enforcement.

However, Castro wrote that neither administrator had any reason to believe the slap was “sexual in nature.” He concedes the slap was an inappropriate way to discipline a student, but states there is no evidence the administrators saw the slap as sexual.

At the time of the incident, Behnke followed up with Happel and told him to “never discipline a student.”

“More than two years later, school officials became aware of other incidents involving Happel which were apparently sexual in nature,” Castro wrote. “Based on that information ... school district officials filed a maltreatment report which included the incident in this case.

“It is this court’s finding that there is insufficient probable cause to establish that the Defendants knew or had reason to believe—at the time the incident occurred—that Happel’s act was done with any sexual or aggressive intent.”

Backstrom wrote in a statement the Dakota County Attorney’s Office “respectfully disagree[s]” with the dismissal of charges.

Because Castro’s dismissal was based on a factual determination and not a legal determination, it cannot be appealed.

“What this case leads me to conclude is that our State’s laws relating to mandated reporting need to be revised and strengthened,” Backstrom said in a statement.

Behnke addresses school community

In a statement to the Falcon Heights Elementary community, Behnke said she was “sincerely grateful” to the school and Roseville district for their “support and kind words” through the ordeal.

“For twenty-five years I have been committed to working as an educator and always focusing on what is best for my students and staff,” Behnke wrote. “My commitment to the safety and wellbeing of each student in my charge will always be my top priority and responsibility.

“Know that I will continue to do my very best each and every day to ensure that every Falcon Heights student is provided a safe, secure and nurturing learning environment.”

Mary Jacobson, the mother of two students at Falcon Heights Elementary and a PTA member, said she’s glad the case has been resolved. Jacobson added the situation had been like a “cloud over the school” with parents wondering what the outcome would be.

“Falcon Heights is a strong school, [a] strong community with involved parents. Now that it’s over with, staff’s energy can be focused on positive things for students.”

Jacobson added that she has worked with Behnke on various PTA projects, finding her to be “eager to make positive changes” and “very open and receptive” to new ideas.

“When the story [about the charges] first broke, it was disbelief. I like her, I have nothing bad to say.”

Johanna Holub can be reached at jholub@lillienews.com or 651-748-7813. Follow her on Twitter @jholubnews.

 

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