The Central High teacher battered by a student in a lunchroom attack in 2015 was in U.S. District Court Thursday hoping to keep alive his civil suit against the St. Paul Public Schools.
John Ekblad alleges that the district failed to protect him from violence when he tried to intervene in a fight and was slammed onto a table and choked into unconsciousness by a 16-year-old student.
The district says Ekblad faced the "special hazard" of breaking up fights as a paid lunchroom supervisor and that his job-related injuries were a matter for the state's workers' compensation system, not the courts, to resolve.
After a half-hour hearing, U.S. District Judge David Doty took under advisement the district's motion to dismiss the case. Ekblad, sitting afterward on a courthouse bench, his right hand twitching, said it's likely that his teaching career is over. "I hate to say it: [I'm] 100 percent disabled, and it's really hard to take," he said.
Philip Villaume, his attorney, argued before Doty that the case could be considered by the court because questions could be raised as to whether the student, who is black, attacked Ekblad, who is white, for racial or personal reasons.
The district under former Superintendent Valeria Silva failed to crack down on assaultive behavior by black students in particular, Villaume said, creating "for all intents and purposes, a war zone" within the state's second-largest district.
Hannah Felix, an attorney representing the district and Silva, said that district officials have the discretion to create public policy balancing social and economic interests and had "official immunity" from court action. Silva did not attend the hearing. Theresa Battle, an assistant superintendent who is a co-defendant, was in the courtroom.
Felix noted, too, that as a paid lunchroom supervisor, and a member of Central High's safety team, Ekblad had a duty to maintain order. After initially balking at accepting workers' compensation, Ekblad has signed and cashed checks totaling $65,772 through March 3, a court filing states.
Ekblad took issue with Felix's arguments after the hearing. Getting beaten "had nothing to do with my job," he said.
He continues to have memory problems and headaches, he added, and doesn't cope with stress very well. "I'm a mess," he said.
Doty must sort through the question of whether the case qualifies for consideration despite there being no previous contacts between Ekblad and the student. The judge said Villaume has noted that the 16-year-old made a racially tinged comment about Ekblad after the attack. But he wondered about the absence of evidence showing the student was "laying out to get him."
The distinction is important because the Workers' Compensation Act allows for a court challenge if an assailant had personal animosity toward the victim. Felix noted that Ekblad himself said he had no prior history with the student. Villaume said the case was one of "personal spontaneous animosity."
No matter how he decides, Doty made it clear: "This is a tragic incident," he said. "It just shouldn't have happened at all."
Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109