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Published December 11, 2010, 12:00 AM

Red Lake teachers struggle with PTSD

Not covered under Minnesota workers’ comp BEMIDJI, Minn. – 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.

By: Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public Radio, INFORUM

BEMIDJI, Minn. – 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.

Salander 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.

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.

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.

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.


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