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Teacher attacked by student working to change law

By Greg Gelpi

Attacked by a student and injured when breaking up a fight, Gretchen Simpson, an employee of Clayton County Public Schools, has been forced to take sick leave for her injuries suffered on the job.

Simpson, 54, who has racked up about $9,000 in non-medical bills alone, is working with the Georgia Association of Educators to change the state's worker's compensation laws to protect teachers injured by students. Worker's compensation has paid for most of her medical costs, but doesn't pay for some of the accompanying costs.

As it is, worker's compensation covers those injured on the job through accidents and otherwise, but does not cover those injured through intentional acts.

"?Injury' or ?personal injury' means only injury by accident arising out of and in the course of the employment," Georgia law states.

Simpson continues to ache from the injuries and doctors say she will need to continue physical therapy for six more months, she said. Because worker's compensation doesn't cover her injuries, Simpson has used all of her sick leave to tend to her injuries and must squeeze in an hour here and there to see doctors outside of her work schedule.

Jocelyn Whitfield, the director of government relations for GAE, is working with Simpson to lobby legislators to address the situation.

"Gretchen has had some long term injuries as a result of her attacks," Whitfield said. "Obviously, that's not a fair situation. The problem is that there still are some ramifications for being off work so long."

In its last session, the Georgia General Assembly codified physical assault against teachers and defined violations of student code of conduct, she said. The GAE will work with legislators to change the workers' compensation law in the next session.

"There are a lot of legislators who are advocates for workers' rights," Whitfield said.

In the meantime, Simpson can follow the appeals process, said Stan Carter, the executive director of the State Board of Workers' Compensation. Anyone can file to have an administrative judge to hear the case. Cases can be appealed all the way to the state Supreme Court.

The first injury occurred in May 2002 when she injured her knee while breaking up a fight at school, Simpson said.

"I had difficulty getting off for physical therapy during school hours," she recorded in a journal of her injuries. "(Physical therapy) also was very painful, walking hurt even more and I had to stop going."

Although she is given 12 days of sick leave each year, she has taken off more than six weeks to tend to her injuries, she said.

Simpson's second injury occurred in January when a student hit her with a stick, knocking her to the ground and re-injuring her knee and bit her through her jacket, breaking the skin.

Simpson said the two events permanently changed her life, which had been quite active. Doctors advised no extended standing, sitting or walking.

"Golf is out of the question," she said. "I'm not able to do any swimming, which used to be my passion. My lifestyle has changed considerably."

Simpson has hired John Sweet, a worker's compensation attorney, and is seeking a number of remedies, including return of her sick days and compensating her lost wages, medicine travel and parking.

"Worker's Comp laws do not apply to soldiers and should not apply to the educational staff working in a battlefield situation," Simpson stated.

Sweet couldn't discuss the case because of attorney-client confidentiality, but he did confirm that he represents Sweet in a worker's compensation matter.