Ignored.

It’s a fitting way to describe the status of many deaf and hard-of-hearing children in South Dakota, whose unique educational needs have been compromised at every turn by state leaders seeking a more convenient and affordable path.

An Argus Leader investigation detailed a systematic lack of leadership and accountability among lawmakers, educators and government officials, forcing hundreds of families to scramble for educational opportunities that children with disabilities are guaranteed under federal law.

Of course, that’s where it gets complicated. Loopholes and rationalizations abound. Frustration mounts. As time passes without progress, the silence is deafening.



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Taner Kiewel was in the last graduating class at the South Dakota School for the Deaf. He now wonders why the state is taking valuable resources away from deaf students. Erin Bormett, Sioux Falls Argus Leader

Children with other disabilities don’t always qualify for offerings at the South Dakota School for the Deaf, a once-thriving Sioux Falls institution now housed in a former bank building in a commercial area not far from a strip club.

Those who are enrolled don’t always receive high-quality services, and certainly not the level of attention the school provided in its heyday as a residential campus. There’s an increased reliance on outreach programs with school districts, many of which lack the trained staff or resources to help deaf students thrive.

The South Dakota Board of Regents was tasked with supervising the residential School for the Deaf campus, which was established in 1880 in central Sioux Falls and written into the state constitution.

Timeline: How South Dakota has ignored deaf children over the years

When challenges arose, which they often did, including declining enrollment and allegations of verbal and sexual harassment involving an administrator, the default reaction was to dial back services and save money.

The only way to reverse that trend would have been for powerful people in Pierre to declare that the needs of the state’s deaf community were worth the financial commitment, and to fight for legislation toward that end. That leadership never came.

In fact, former Democratic legislator Dan Ahlers told the Argus Leader he was urged to “let it go” when he worked with parents and lawmakers to shed light on disturbing trends in deaf education and explore solutions.

“What I learned right away was there was a lot of pressure coming from around the office to not get involved,” said Ahlers, who is running for U.S. Senate in 2020. 

Lawmakers’ willful inaction has been emboldened by complexities in how federal guidelines are interpreted and carried out.

More: Argus Leader Ignored project

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1975 mandated that public schools provide services for disabled children that emulate as closely as possible the educational experience of non-disabled students.

That led to many of the School for the Deaf students shifting to more of an outreach program to local school districts, but specialized services did not always follow. Sign language interpreters are expensive, and the lone deaf education degree program was phased out in 2016 by Augustana University.

There’s hope that a new advisory council for the South Dakota School for the Deaf will shed light on these issues, and a 2018 law known as the Language Equity and Acquisition for Deaf Kids law awaits meaningful action from the South Dakota Department of Education.

So far, though, calls for reform have been stymied by the fact it’s too easy for those in power to pass the buck through a maze of what one attorney for disabled rights called a “uniquely confusing and muddled” system.

For the estimated 600 deaf and hard-of-hearing kids in South Dakota, the future depends on state leaders finding the intestinal fortitude to fight through that tangled web, ensuring that  some of the most vulnerable members of their citizenry no longer feel ignored.

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