For nearly 20 years, teaching challenged and excited Francis Bolden. But on Oct. 11, 2005, the job nearly killed him.
While instructing a physical education class at McKinley Technology High School, Bolden had all he could take of a 10th-grader straddling two treadmills ratcheted up to full speed.
Bolden stood over him for a few minutes and waited for the kid to cut it out. When he didn’t, the teacher said, “Your day in the weight room is over,” and returned to a spot where he could keep an eye on some students playing basketball. Then Bolden felt something smack against his head.
“I’m thinking it was one of the basketballs bouncing off of the bleachers,” Bolden says. “So I grab my head and my hand just slides down automatically.…One of the female students starts to yell ‘Mr. Bolden, you have a hole in your head.’”
The student standing on the treadmills had dropped a fire extinguisher onto Bolden’s skull.
The P.E. teacher began slipping in and out of consciousness. He woke up at Howard University Medical Center to find out the force of the blow had severely damaged his occipital nerve.
Doctors gave him three choices: steroids delivered straight to his brain, risky surgery, or a long regime of heavy medication. Bolden went with the third choice.
The student was brought to court on charges of attempted murder and sentenced to three months in a juvenile detention center, according to court documents.
For Bolden, though, the trial was the start of enduring problems. He had to watch surveillance footage of the attack, which clearly showed the student grabbing his weapon of choice and hitting Bolden with it. That experience “completely freaked me out,” Bolden says.
It didn’t freak him out to the point where he never wanted to teach again—Bolden, 46, was in his second year at McKinley, his seventh with DCPS, and had taught for 10 years before that—but it did complicate his ability to do so.
He suffered intermittent seizures, mood swings, and severe pain. Still, on the anniversary of the attack, the city deemed Bolden ready to return to McKinley.
On his first day back, Bolden suffered major seizures, according to medical documents he provided. He went back on workers’ comp. The next year, he tried it again and suffered more seizures, records show. His neurologist recommended he not go back. But by early 2008, DCPS said it was time to return again. His lawyers appealed the decision and lost.
D.C. school officials, says Cherita Whiting, a school activist who was McKinley PTA president at the time of the attack, “talk about teachers, teachers, teachers. But this is a man that almost died because of something that happened in school, and they have run him through the ringer.”
Besides Whiting and another parent of a former student, few others in the system, Bolden contends, have offered him help during his ordeal, including the teacher’s union, which he insists has passed him between building representatives, and representatives of the chancellor’s office. Union president George Parker says he has a representative and a lawyer looking into the matter.
In May, Bolden’s relationship with the school system became even more complicated when he took DCPS to federal court to win back two months’ worth of workers’ comp. The judge ruled in his favor, giving the city two weeks to make the payments. Bolden says he has yet to get this money and is planning to write the judge. Jennifer Calloway, assistant press secretary for Chancellor Michelle Rhee, writes in an e-mail that her records show Bolden has gotten his due.
Bolden’s old teaching spot at McKinley was filled last spring, making him something of a nomad. Whiting helped him land a slot at Shaw Junior High in the 2007-08 school year. (Shaw is one of the schools that the administration closed this summer.)
Rather than actually instructing students, Bolden says for the last two months of the school year, he was confined to an office, allowing the principal to satisfy the requirement of bringing Bolden back.
“I sat in a room that was no bigger than 10-by-5, just sitting, that’s it,” he says. “I signed out when it was time for lunch. I came back, signed out when it was time to go—with doctor’s appointments in between. I contacted human resources and told them, ‘I’m not teaching, what’s the sense?’ They just ignored it.”
At about that time, Bolden, his wife, and their 3-year-old son got booted out of his Alexandria home. He says he was unable to make the rent while waiting for months of back pay from DCPS. The family is now living in his sister’s one-bedroom condo in Arlington, a temporary arrangement, he says.
If Bolden has to go back, he says he’d prefer to teach and he’d prefer to return to McKinley. He’s interviewed for open slots there as well as at two other D.C. public schools. As of the second week in August he had not been placed.
“My situation is just a freak accident, not something that I see happening again. But out of all the high schools I know, McKinley’s one of the best,” he says. “I don’t want to put myself in that position wondering whether or not something’s going to happen to me just because of the history of the school itself.”
Calloway says that “while we do everything in our power to place teachers returning from leave in their former positions, according to our current contract there has to be an actual vacancy.” If a position has been filled, she says, “the agreement requires us to offer the former teacher a comparable position elsewhere in the system.” Parker contends it’s “not a matter of what’s legal, it’s a matter of what’s right and he should be back at McKinley because he did nothing wrong in this case.”
Bolden has considered leaving the D.C. school system, but he says that each time the thought comes up, he realizes he doesn’t want to start over in a new school district.
“Yes, it has changed my perceptions on kids—I’m a bit more defensive, sizing the students up more—but it hasn’t changed how I feel about teaching,” he says. “I don’t think there’s anyone better at what I do than I am. It’s just this one kid.”