WRONGFULLY ACCUSED: Reclamation projectSecond in series: Joe Halvorson had landed his dream job. He had become a full-time teacher.
By: Mike Longaecker, The Republican Eagle
Joe Halvorson had landed his dream job. He had become a full-time teacher.
"It was a life-changing moment," the 34-year-old said, recalling the day he was hired.
The accomplishment was a long time in the making. A 1994 graduate of Ellsworth High School, he would go on to graduate St. Cloud State University in 2002.
He went to work as a substitute teacher in Rochester before taking a work sabbatical in Costa Rica. He then returned to the Twin Cities where he worked as a restaurant manager.
By 2007, he was ready to re-enter the teaching field.
"I figured it was time," the Rochester man said.
He was hired at Zumbrota-Mazeppa High School, where he taught Spanish. Halvorson replaced a well-liked teacher, which he said made it a challenge, but called the 2007-08 school year "a good year."
"I had every intention of making a career of teaching," he said.
His first year as a full-time teacher was drawing to a close in May 2008 when he received a letter from the Minnesota State Patrol inquiring about an incident that occurred several weeks earlier on Highway 52.
"When I opened it, I was shocked," he said. "Did I see an accident? Did I cause an accident? Did a camera catch me speeding?"
Not even close.
Halvorson had become the prime suspect in a case of a man exposing himself to busload of female Cannon Falls High School students on their way to a softball game.
Though the case was ultimately dismissed after more than a year of litigation - Halvorson's attorney successfully argued the case of misidentification - the saga keeps him up at night.
"There is a permanent stigma and scar on my reputation," he said. "A day doesn't go by when I don't have a sinking feeling in my stomach about what the future holds, where I don't question what could have been."
Worst of all for Halvorson, his dream job is now just that: a dream.
He remembers learning the bad news.
"Your life flashes before your eyes, basically," Halvorson said. "Your dreams have just been eternally shattered."
A life upended
Halvorson has been slowly putting the pieces back together.
He couldn't eat for two days after the media got hold of the allegations.
After being let go by the district, he took odd jobs, sometimes working, sometimes not. His savings account became depleted.
He said he focused on the basics - maintaining food and shelter - while wrestling with the scope of the episode.
"There was definitely trauma," Halvorson said. "Physical, emotional, mental, psychological, social."
He credits his faith and a supportive network of family members for keeping him afloat.
And that's how he's been able to move on.
The process has been taxing, but Halvorson said he's now in a better place - gainfully employed at a job he finds rewarding.
"It's inspired me to become a better person," he said of the ordeal.
He declined to divulge what he does now, only describing the job as "helping others."
"You have to find what truly inspires you," Halvorson said. "When something is taken from you, a lot of the time that must be replaced with something that's equally fulfilling."
Still, he said, "I miss teaching."
Halvorson knows that pursuit will be an uphill battle.
An uncertain teaching future
It appears doubtful he will return to Z-M anytime soon.
That is, Halvorson said, despite the fact that he tried to be as forthcoming as possible as his world began to shift. Halvorson said he notified school officials immediately after the allegations came down.
"I had nothing to hide - absolutely nothing," he said.
In fact, Halvorson said at that point he figured the whole thing was a prank being played on the first-year teacher.
Yet even after he was let go, he said Supt. Richard Meyerhofer and Principal Erick Enger "empathized with my plight." Meyerhofer later said Enger volunteered to supply Halvorson with a letter of recommendation.
Meyerhofer told the R-E that data privacy laws prohibited him from providing details on the reasons behind Halvorson's termination, but noted that he was a non-tenured teacher at the time. Meyerhofer said there was no discussion of what might happen with Halvorson's job if the charges were dropped.
As to whether the district would ever hire Halvorson back, Meyerhofer responded, "Not at this time, as the individual we presently have is working well within the district."
Minnesota Board of Teaching's teacher ethics specialist, Monica Rasmussen, said Halvorson's license remains valid through 2015 and the board never sanctioned him.
Still, Halvorson acknowledged those circumstances don't prevent someone in the hiring process from running a simple Google search, where old news stories may raise red flags.
Red Wing Supt. Stan Slessor said that's a possibility, especially if the teaching candidate's allegations stemmed from a nearby incident.
"If he lives within the radius, it probably does have a little bit of an impact," Slessor said.
He said the screening process would likely involve a background and reference check. Even if all that checks out, incidents like Halvorson's can become a deterrent if the teacher is among a top group of candidates vying for the job.
"You might take someone with no hullabaloo," Slessor said, acknowledging that such scenarios are "unfortunate."
But he said that doesn't mean all would be lost. If the teaching candidate were to apply in a district where old scuttlebutt would be less likely to crop up, then the chances for a no-hassle hire increase.
"Sometimes it takes a new start, and sometimes that means a new neighborhood," Slessor said.
Expungement: 'A small recompense'
Meanwhile, Halvorson has other things on his mind - such as getting the case expunged from his record.
Even if charges against you are dismissed, they stay on your record unless they are expunged through the courts.
Attorney Bruce Rivers, who served as co-counsel on Halvorson's case, said that's close to happening. Getting the case expunged from Halvorson's record "can't get any more important," Rivers said.
But it doesn't erase history.
"It can't un-fire him," Rivers said. "It's a small recompense."
"(Expungement is) an important aspect, but it can't undo what went wrong," he said.
Still, he looks forward to the day that slate is wiped clean. Behind it all, there is optimism.
"The last chapter has yet to be written," Halvorson said.
See the final part of this series on Sept. 22, which explores the challenges associated with photo lineups.