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St. Paul schools push for testimony in sex abuse lawsuit

September 21, 2018

An attorney for St. Paul Public Schools wants a judge to compel testimony from a 19-year-old man who alleges that a former school custodian sexually abused him for years when he was a child.

The attorney representing the man, identified in court documents as “Doe #1,” said his client is so traumatized he can’t speak to anyone about the abuse he suffered at the hands of Walter Happel, whose history of improper behavior with students was known to the district long before several allegations against him surfaced publicly in 2014.

“It’s so traumatic — what happened to him — he can’t verbalize it,” Doe #1’s attorney, Gary Manka, argued at a motion hearing Thursday.

Doe #1 sued Happel and the district in Ramsey County District Court last year, alleging that Happel engaged in “unpermitted and repeated instances of sexual abuse and sexual contact” with him from 2011 to 2014 when he was a special-needs student at Linwood Monroe Arts Plus school.

The district denied responsibility, stating in its answer to the suit that any damages were due to “acts of third parties, not subject to the District’s control and for which the District is not legally liable.”

Happel pleaded guilty in 2015 to sexually abusing two boys (not students) in the 1980s, and he entered an Alford plea on an accusation that he peeked at a 10-year-old boy standing at a urinal at Linwood Monroe in 2014. Five other cases involving other Linwood Monroe students, including Doe #1, were dismissed as part of the plea deal.

Doe #1 was questioned by school attorney Margaret Skelton about his suit during a deposition this past July.

“And what happened in the bathroom with Walter?” Skelton asked, according to a partial transcript.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he said.

“Unfortunately, you’ve brought a lawsuit against St. Paul Public Schools,” she said.

“You don’t already have a record of what happened in the bathroom?” he said.

“I need to hear it from you,” she said.

“No, I don’t want to talk about it,” he said.

Court records show that Doe #1’s mother alerted the school in 2011 that her son reported Happel regularly following him into a bathroom for a year, and that Happel once shook Happel’s penis and spoke to her son suggestively while they stood at urinals. She reported the incident to police when the school did not respond to her follow-up message.

Manka said it was only recently that Doe #1 was able to tell his mother that Happel’s behavior included sexual abuse and contact.

“He starts shaking visibly,” Manka said of the man’s reaction to being questioned about the abuse. “He starts crying.”

Skelton filed a motion asking Judge Robyn Millenacker to order Doe #1 to testify at a deposition.

Skelton said that Doe #1 told police on two occasions, about seven and four years ago, that Happel “never” touched him, and repeated a similar statement to a medical provider in 2017.

“The plaintiff’s story has changed over time,” Skelton argued. “There are a lot of questions in this case, and St. Paul Public Schools won’t be able to defend itself” without his testimony.

Manka argued that testimony from Doe #1’s mother should be sufficient at a civil trial.

The judge proposed having a “highly skilled” expert in child sex abuse trauma question Doe #1. She did not rule on the school’s motion.

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708

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