‘It makes me feel unappreciated’: Former Robb Elementary teacher’s workers’ comp claim denied

After the shooting at Robb, Mercedes Salas immediately went back to teaching at Uvalde CISD

UVALDE, Texas – A Robb Elementary teacher who helped carry her students out of broken windows while a gunman was across the hall is still fighting.

This time, she is fighting to get workers’ compensation for injuries she endured that day.

May 24, 2022

“As I heard their screams, I heard the gunshots. Then I heard nothing. And then it just clicked in my brain, like, ‘Oh, my God. They’ve been killed,” said Mercedes Salas.

Thinking back to May 24th, 2022, brings a wave of emotions for Salas.

“I prayed. I’m like, ‘God, please protect us,’” Salas said, remembering the hushed whispers that morning.

Her classroom was just across the hall from where a gunman ultimately killed 19 children and two teachers.

The Department of Justice report shows the West Building room clearing and evacuation status at Robb Elementary when entry was made into classrooms 111 & 112. (Copyright 2023 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

Salas said she could hear officers in the hallway while she and her students huddled together in a dark corner, waiting for rescue.

After more than 40 minutes, that moment finally came.

“I heard my window shatter,” Salas said.

KSAT 12 News examined hours of body camera video and was able to find footage of Salas and the children in her classroom climbing through the broken glass and running to safety.

“I was carrying like this out the window. And I ended up cutting my hands with the glass,” Salas said, describing what she did the day of the shooting.

Salas double-checked the room was empty before she exited through the broken window herself.

“I hit both of my knees on the cinder block,” she said.

Body Worn Camera video shows Mercedes Salas being evacuated out of a broken classroom window on May 24, 2022. (Copyright 2023 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

Despite the emotional trauma and physical toll the Robb school shooting took on her, Salas returned to the classroom weeks later to teach summer school and has continued teaching at Uvalde CISD since.

“I feel like if I’m not there, you know, something might happen,” Salas said.

Workers’ Compensation

For 17 years, Salas has taught at Uvalde CISD without any problem. Now, walking around an elementary school classroom and through the halls has gotten much harder.

Her knees, which have never had problems before, swell and cause her pain.

“They start hurting a lot then I have to sit down, you know, and my kids know that my knees hurt,” Salas said.

Salas first saw a doctor in June 2022, the month after the shooting. At that point, the doctor prescribed her physical therapy.

She showed KSAT Investigates some of the exercises she was taught to do. The therapy helped, but when the doctor prescribed another round of treatment, the workers’ compensation company denied the claim.

“My second round was denied,” Salas said.

“Through workers’ comp?” KSAT Investigates reporter Leigh Waldman asked.

“Through worker’s comp. But then they approved it,” she said.

When that didn’t serve as a long-term fix for her knees, Salas’s doctor recommended injections into her knees.

“It’s $1,000 each injection. You need two of them, one for each knee. He said, ‘I don’t know. That might be tough to get it approved.’ And I said, ‘OK, well, let’s try it.’ And no, it was denied,” Salas said.

In the letter sent by the company that handles the workers’ comp claims, they state there is no permanent damage to her body.

Another page attributed her knee pain and swelling to arthritis, though she had never been diagnosed with it before.

“My treatment of anything just stopped there because I did receive that letter stating, you know, I can continue going to the doctor if I want to, but I have to pay for it now,” Salas said.

For UCISD employees, their workers’ compensation claims are handled through Edwards Risk Management Inc.

Salas asked the representative who helped her why her claim was denied. She said the woman compared her injuries to something that could happen if someone falls during a fire drill.

“I could just not believe what she said. And I’m like, ‘A fire drill?’ And, you know, I said, ‘Look, that day, I was just trying to survive. I was trying to stay alive,” Salas said.

KSAT Investigates reached out to the company to ask about Salas’s rejection. President and CEO Kim Edwards explained that claims are regulated through the Division of Workers’ Compensation, and as the carrier, they’re “bound by that opinion unless and until it is reversed or modified.”

When pressed about what Salas shared was said to her about a fire drill, Edwards stopped responding.

“I just want to feel the way I was before,” Salas said through tears.

Salas’s claim is just one of the 24 claims filed listing Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District with a date of injury as May 24, 2022, according to the Texas Department of Insurance, Division of Workers’ Compensation.

That same year, over 110,000 claims were filed. About 94% of all claims are approved without going through a dispute resolution process.

The TDI, Division of Workers’ Compensation, can’t discuss information with KSAT 12 News information about Salas’s case. However, in a statement, it shared, “Generally, full denials happen when the insurance company does not believe the injury is work-related or does not meet legal criteria to be covered.”

There is a process to dispute a rejected claim through TDI.

DWC’s dispute resolution process “is an administrative process that may include an informal mediation (benefit review conference), a formal hearing held by an administrative law judge (contested case hearing), and an appeal to the DWC Appeals Panel. If parties still disagree after an Appeals Panel decision, they can continue the appeal to a judicial review in court, but that is outside of DWC’s jurisdiction,” according to a statement from a spokesperson.

After the latest denial, Salas says she won’t keep fighting. Instead, she’ll focus on ways to move forward and continue to lean on her faith.

“May 24, I prayed. I know He listens, so I continue to pray every day,” Salas said.

Read more reporting on the KSAT Investigates page.

Find more Uvalde coverage on KSAT.com here

About the Authors

Leigh Waldman is an investigative reporter at KSAT 12. She joined the station in 2021. Leigh comes to San Antonio from the Midwest after spending time at a station in Omaha, NE. After two winters there, she knew it was time to come home to Texas. When Leigh is not at work, she enjoys eating, playing with her dogs and spending time with family.

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