BEMIDJI, Minn. (AP) — About a dozen former teachers who were in class the day of the Red Lake High School shootings on March 21, 2005 are asking for compensation, seeking to recoup lost wages.
Ten people died on the Red Lake Indian Reservation that day, including the teenage gunman.
Mental health professionals are treating the teachers for post-traumatic stress disorder and other issues. But Minnesota workers’ compensation law doesn’t cover lost wages for mental health issues, unless they’re associated with physical injuries.
Former high school English teacher Matt Salander, who says he’s not the same man he was before the school shooting, finds that hard to accept.
Salander’s classroom was right next door to the room where 16-year-old Jeffrey Weise murdered a teacher and three students. Weise then pointed a gun at Salander and fired several shots into his classroom.
“I still have to remind myself that I lived beyond that moment, `cause I would have swore that was it,” said Salander, who managed to teach for two years after the shooting.
Then he had a breakdown. He was plagued by flashbacks, depression and moments of crippling anxiety. He no longer teaches, and doubts he ever will.
Salander’s family gets by on his wife’s income and his Social Security disability payments. His family relationships are strained, and he rarely leaves the house.
“What can you say about the mind? Every time, I heard gunshots that weren’t there, and screams,” he said. “My mind couldn’t convince itself that they weren’t real, even though I knew they weren’t real.”
Salander isn’t alone. He’s one of about a dozen Red Lake teachers who were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. None of them teach at Red Lake anymore. Most have left the profession altogether.
The teachers filed workers compensation benefits claims to cover lost wages. But every claim was denied. That’s because Minnesota is one of only about 10 states in the country that don’t allow compensation for mental injury. None of the people in this case were physically hurt during the shooting.
Salander finds it confusing that society takes care of U.S. soldiers suffering from PTSD, but not teachers traumatized in the workplace.
“I felt betrayed,” he said. “Ah well, sucks to be you. Sorry that had to happen. See you. And that’s the thing, you can’t say that teachers are important to your community or your state or your country, and not help them when they’re struggling. You can’t have it both ways.”
A Bemidji law firm is trying to overturn the workers’ comp rulings. Attorney Mike Garbow said the appeal process means his clients are subjected to painful psychological evaluations. He said the evaluations appear designed to discredit their claims.
“There is something that is almost just barbaric about that,” Garbow said. “It is an element of our society that needs to be rectified, because these individuals are being re-victimized. … It’s not what the common Minnesotan would think is fair.”
Since the shootings in 2005, there have been big advances in the science of PTSD. For example, recent brain scan studies at the Minneapolis Veterans Administration Medical Center suggest that people with PTSD experience measurable, physical changes to their brain chemistry.
But the science isn’t conclusive, and that makes it difficult and expensive to prove PTSD is linked to physical injury under Minnesota’s workers’ comp laws. Still, attorneys representing two of the Red Lake teachers were successful in winning compensation awards in two cases through mediation.
Changing the workers’ comp law would be up to the state Legislature. But that sort of change typically first goes through a powerful group called the Workers Compensation Advisory Council. Its members represent both business and labor.
Tom Hesse, vice president of government affairs for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said the business community has no interest in changing the law to allow compensation for mental injury without proving a physical one. Hesse, an alternate on the advisory council, said such compensation would lead to higher workers’ comp costs and open the door for abuse.
“We have to look at what’s good for the workers’ compensation system for our membership,” Hesse said. “We can’t afford to become less competitive than we are currently, and we just don’t think this is a change that will make Minnesota a better place to do business.”
Labor groups say Minnesota is behind other states in dealing with PTSD in the workplace. Brad Lehto, chief of staff with the Minnesota AFL-CIO, said the struggles of former Red Lake teachers are a clear example that Minnesota law needs updating.
“This is not anything they went to work planning on doing,” said Lehto, another alternate on the advisory council. “This is clearly a work injury situation. There’s no fraud here. It should certainly be covered under workers’ compensation is our belief.”
Neither business nor labor officials believe a change in the law is likely any time soon, especially since both the Minnesota House and Senate have more conservative Republican majorities.
But some health professionals believe the politics of workers’ compensation will eventually have to become more aligned with advances in science.
Brian Livermore, a retired family practice physician in Bemidji, treated several former Red Lake teachers and testified at one of their compensation appeals.
“We will sooner than later have a definitive answer to why people develop PTSD from that kind of trauma,” Livermore said. “It will probably result in an ability to actually objectively determine that. Just like you do a blood test for syphilis or an X-ray for osteoporosis, we’ll have that at some point. It’s just not quite there yet, but sooner or later, the law will have to change to incorporate that.”
Workers’ comp appeal cases for 10 former Red Lake teachers are set to go to trial in the next several months. Attorneys representing the teachers hope to settle the cases through mediation.
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