Hard Luck: Five Years After a Horrible Attack, Teacher Francis Bolden’s Life is Still Broken
On Oct. 11, 2005, McKinley Tech gym teacher Francis Bolden punished a trouble-making student for horsing around on treadmills. The student retaliated by picking up a fire extinguisher and dropping it from a second-story balcony onto Bolden’s head.
Bolden initially thought he’d been hit in the head with a basketball, until a student informed him that he had a hole in his head. He eventually woke up at Howard University Hospital to the news that he had a severely damaged occipital nerve and would be suffering severe pain, seizures, mood swings, and loss of memory for years to come.
The student was found guilty of attempted murder and aggravated assault and sentenced to three months in a juvenile detention center, according to published reports. Bolden’s sentence, however, has been much longer.
On top of the physical pain he says he still feels, he’s now unemployed. Having blown through his retirement, he’s dependent on the generosity of friends and family to keep his family of four afloat. His problems, Bolden says, have been made worse by an uncaring city bureaucracy.
“They just want me to go away,” says Bolden, who had taught for nearly 20 years prior to his injury and was earning more than $80,000 in 2009 when he was terminated by D.C. Public Schools.
Washington City Paper first wrote about Bolden in the summer of 2008. At that time, Bolden’s list of problems was long: He and his family had been kicked out of his Alexandria home because, he says, he’d been unable to pay rent while waiting on overdue back pay from DCPS. He had to sue DCPS to get two months’ worth of pay. Meanwhile, his job at McKinley Tech was filled, and his attempts to go back to teaching kept ending with seizures and a return to the workers’ compensation rolls. Bolden said the Washington Teachers’ Union, which is supposed to have its members’ backs in cases like these, had virtually ignored him.
Two and a half years later, it looks like things have only gotten worse for him.
After the 2008 story ran, Bolden returned to DCPS to teach gym at Woodrow Wilson Senior High School. His first day back teaching, while setting up a volleyball net, Bolden says he had another major seizure while frightened students looked on.
“They were freaking out,” Bolden recalls.
The problem, Bolden says, is that his injury limits how much he can move. The added exertion that comes with being a gym teacher is too much for his damaged nerves to bear, Bolden says.
The Office of Risk Management, which oversees workers’ compensation claims for city employees, disagrees. In city records, the District’s doctors wrote that Bolden’s dizziness and seizures are not due to the extinguisher attack, and he could return to work without limitations. The doctor also wrote that the “exquisite tenderness” Bolden felt on his head three and a half years after the extinguisher hit was not due to that injury, but a result of myofacial pain syndrome, which can be caused by injury, stress, or old age.
Bolden says his doctors told him the opposite: that his injuries were the result of the fire extinguisher being dropped from a second-story balcony onto his head, and he should not return to work as a gym teacher. Bolden filed an appeal with ORM in June 2009 asking for a formal hearing.
What happened next is also a matter of dispute. Fred Lewis, a spokesman for DCPS, initially said the appeal failed, and when Bolden didn’t report to work after losing the appeal, he was scrubbed from the DCPS payroll. DCPS records show Bolden’s termination was processed on Oct. 28, 2009. But in a letter dated Oct. 26, 2009, a representative from DCPS incorrectly wrote to Bolden that he had not filed an appeal with risk management and “DCPS does not have a payment obligation to you.”
But Bolden says the appeal is still active and not yet been resolved. When LL asked Lewis for a date when the appeal was denied, he responded that Bolden’s case was “extremely complicated” and all questions about Bolden’s appeal should be directed to Office of Risk Management.
New Office of Risk Management Director Phillip Lattimore, who recently took over a department Mayor Vince Gray described as a “mess,” says his records show Bolden and ORM officially settled in July 2010. Bolden insists the case is still open.
That there’s some disagreement in a workers’ comp case between an employee’s doctor and the government’s doctor is nothing shocking. Look at enough workers’ comp fights, and you’ll quickly conclude that medicine is a very inexact science and doctors have a strange tendency of making diagnoses that benefit whoever is paying them.
But Bolden’s situation isn’t a run-of-the mill case of a strained back or sore neck. A student tried to kill him, and the city’s solution was to keep returning him to a job he clearly could not do anymore, before scrubbing him off the payroll. After five years of struggling, Bolden says in retrospect he wished the city had placed him on permanent disability after the accident—which doesn’t seem like an unreasonable request, given what happened to him.
What’s also troubling about Bolden’s case is that he says he’s been fighting virtually on his own, and his efforts to enlist his union for help didn’t go far. Bolden provided LL with e-mails he sent to then-WTU president George Parker asking for help. In one dated Dec. 3, 2009, Parker commands his vice president, Nathan Saunders, to make helping Bolden a priority and contact him within 24 hours. Saunders, who is now WTU’s president after beating Parker in a heated contest, didn’t contact Bolden for weeks after that e-mail was sent, according to Bolden.
“They did nothing,” says Bolden. Saunders and Parker did not respond to calls seeking comment.
Bolden did have one sliver of good luck last year, when he settled with Hawk One Security over alleged negligence on the company’s part when the attack occurred. But even that good fortune didn’t amount to much. Bolden had to pay much of the $105,000 settlement back to the Office of Risk Management, which had filed a lien on any payments by Hawk One to recoup money it had already paid out to Bolden. He says his take-home after everyone else was paid came to about $10,000.
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Fans of campaign histrionics might have been worried earlier this year when Sekou Biddle nabbed the D.C. Democratic State Committee’s appointment to the at-large councilmember vacancy. Biddle, a smart education reformer, quickly lined up the support of the city’s political establishment, including the mayor, and looked like he could cruise to an easy victory in the April special election. With that support came the cash: Biddle has raised more than $50,000 so far, and he’s easily the money leader in the race.
Biddle might still cruise to an easy victory, but so far at least, the campaign hasn’t been short on entertainment. Witness Ward 8’s Jacque Patterson—who has raised an impressive $20,000 of his own so far—making allegations that unnamed Biddle supporters have warned Patterson campaign workers they’re hurting their careers by not playing for the right team.
Patterson and Ward 1 activist Bryan Weaver also complained that the DCDSC was improperly flexing its miniscule political muscles by sending out a Biddle mass e-mail, asking for help in a petition drive.
And finally, former Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent Orange, who narrowly lost the DCDSC’s appointment to Biddle and has raised exactly $0 for his at-large race, sent out an e-mail to a Ward 5 list touting the results of a two-week-old poll that puts him at a distant second to “undecided.” “Don’t count Vincent Orange out,” concludes the e-mail.
LL won’t—after all, LL hopes Orange and all the other candidates make this race interesting. Otherwise, what’s the point?
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery