Teacher's Story of Scuffle, and Bid for Benefits

Times Staff Writer

When she left the school grounds that day last April--screaming, crying and deeply embarrassed--she was in her 14th year as a teacher in Compton.

Now, it's uncertain whether she will ever go back.

She eventually became one of 457 Compton Unified School District employees to file a legal claim during the 1985-86 academic year seeking medical benefits under the state workers compensation law. For most of her tenure, the teacher says, she endured a variety of physical and mental abuses, all of which came to a head as she and a teen-age girl scuffled in the dirt in front of other students and faculty.

Even those who believe her story--and it is yet to be proven--say her case is more extreme than those typically filed in the school district. But it involves the kind of "job stress" that is common, according to legal, medical and union workers compensation experts.

On the condition that her name not be published, the teacher allowed her lawyer to disclose details of her claim, which school officials are contesting before an administrative judge.

The woman's tenure as a Compton schoolteacher began in 1972, when she was hired as a physical education instructor and worked exclusively with high school girls. Then 27 and married, she says, she enjoyed the job but admittedly gained a reputation as a disciplinarian. That created "some problems" among her students, who she said "just weren't used to somebody making them toe the line."

There was already pressure in her private life. She became a mother and tried to balance that responsibility with her career. And she was bothered by minor asthma attacks. So her experiences during the school day became all the more draining.

"Every single year, my car was vandalized at least once," she told a psychiatrist. "At different times, my tires were flattened and my car would be scratched with a key. My vehicle was spray painted and my headlights were broken. Dirt was put in the gas tank and nails driven in the tires. Once, a lit cigarette was put out on the car's vinyl roof. Every year I had a new car and every year it was vandalized."

She said she grew angry when school officials refused to reimburse her for repairs. "Eventually, I stopped calling my insurance company because my rates went sky high. I felt like the administration didn't care because it wasn't happening to their cars."

The teacher resorted to paying students to watch her car during the day.

Switched to Counseling

In 1978, she switched from teaching to counseling at the same high school. But after a year she decided to return to the classroom. Her job stress declined, she recalled, when she began to teach co-educational classes, where the girls seemed to switch "from harassing me to impressing the boys."

During a softball game in May, 1984, she was umpiring behind home plate without a face mask when the pitcher, a boy, threw an especially fast ball. The catcher, a girl, suddenly "jumped away," allowing the ball to strike the teacher on the nose. It is unclear whether the catcher's move was deliberate.

"I jumped up immediately, but then I had to hold onto the backstop for a few minutes because my head was really swimming," she told the psychiatrist. "I felt nauseated and I started to vomit."

A physician found that she had suffered a concussion, so she took a brief medical leave.

When she went back to work in mid-May, she was still having nightmares about the incident and would often wake up crying.

'I Wasn't Mean'

Over the next two years, conflicts with students became almost routine. "I blamed the administration for not supporting me and I blamed a lot of my co-workers for not standing up to the students. That just made my job that much harder. I wasn't mean. I just believed in setting rules and holding the students to them."

Then, one day last April, the teacher was instructing a group of students in the gym when four girls who were not members of the class walked in. The teacher and a colleague both asked them to leave, which they did. But toward the end of the period, the girls entered again, and the teacher immediately walked up and escorted them out.

According to the teacher's account, she began to have words with one of the students. Suddenly, a student allegedly pushed her off balance and struck her in the face. As they scuffled, the teacher said, the student kicked and grabbed her and yanked her hair. Others quickly came to the teacher's aid and separated them.

"I was just in a rage," she told the psychiatrist. "I was screaming and crying. I wanted to get a gun and kill her. I was embarrassed and hurt, especially because she did this in front of my class. I laid in the corner of the gym office and I cried. I felt that they didn't pay me enough to take this from anybody. I wasn't even aware of pain. All I knew was that my pride was hurt because I had been beaten up by a kid."

Suspended From School

The student was suspended from school for two weeks, the teacher said. But before the penalty could take effect, she was allowed to attend a field trip to Six Flags Magic Mountain.

"I felt furious. What kind of punishment is it for the student not to be able to go to school but be able to go to Magic Mountain? It was like they were saying that what she did to me was perfectly all right," the teacher said.

The high school sent a report of the scuffle to district officials. The teacher said it included a statement from one witness, a faculty member, who said the teacher had struck the first blow. The teacher's own version of events was not included in the report, she said.

Now, the teacher concluded, "I'm afraid to go back there. . . . Being tough for me was always a means of survival. I had to put up my bluff and hope that I wouldn't be challenged. Now I've been challenged and I lost. I don't know if I can ever maintain the authority and the discipline that I had in the past.

"Without that, I don't think I could even get through one workday."

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