Shakopee school district, superintendent focus of federal whistleblower lawsuit

- The Shakopee school district and its superintendent are the focus of a whistleblower lawsuit just filed in federal court. A former substitute teacher claims the district’s attorney threatened her career after she raised concerns about the credentials of a drug and alcohol counselor on staff.

Shelly Hallberg loved her job as a substitute teacher in the Shakopee School District and truly cares about the students there.

But, she started hearing things from the students that concerned her -- that while some of them were struggling with drug addiction -- they were being counseled by someone unqualified.  To her -- that was a very big deal.

“I went into treatment when I was 16-years-old, so I know what it's like to be a teenager and struggling with addiction,” Hallberg says.

That was 32 years ago, but Hallberg hasn't forgotten what it's like.  As a frequent substitute teacher in the Shakopee School District she saw kids struggling with addiction every day and says a good counselor is crucial.

“The sooner you get proper services, the better the chance there is for recovery,” Hallberg says.

So when Hallberg realized the school’s guidance counselor, Paul Kelly, was promoted to licensed school counselor and chemical health counselor, she was concerned, believing Kelly did not have the proper licensing as required by law.

Shelly says she brought her concerns to the district several times, but she says nothing changed until she got a call from the district's attorney.

“He told me I had no right to talk to other people about it, that I violated the law, I violated data practices [and] I could be sued,” Hallberg says. “He scared me.”

She felt forced to cancel upcoming jobs and filed a lawsuit alleging retaliation.

“It’s a case about Shelly doing the right thing and being retaliated against by being threatened with two financially ruinous lawsuits that were frivolous and couldn’t procedurally be alleged against Shelly in any event - clearly that has scared Shelly into leaving her position there as it would me,” Hallberg’s attorney, David Lewis, says.

While the law does say only a licensed drug counselor can actually counsel, there are a few exceptions on the list, including school counselors.  However, Lewis says that's not enough.

“A guidance counselor can delve into the topic of drugs only to a certain extent,” Lewis says.

But what that individual needs to do is identify a drug-related issue and refer out to a qualified, licensed individual.

But, this case isn't about Hallberg. It's about what's happened to her life for speaking up.

“I’ve broken down crying right on the work floor, a number of times,” Hallberg says.” I've left work early, it's been embarrassing. And probably most frustrating for me is that I don't feel like anything has been done to help these kids that may have been affected by this.”

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