Appeals Court: South Dakota Had Power to Close Deaf School

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

State officials had legal authority to close the South Dakota School for the Deaf campus in Sioux Falls in favor of educating students with hearing impairments in local school districts, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The state closed the school last year after enrollment dropped from more than 130 in the 1970s to five in 2009 because technological advancements such as cochlear implants and hearing aids allow students to attend mainstream classes in school districts around the state.

The parents of eight students filed a lawsuit saying the move violated the South Dakota Constitution and a federal law that requires states to provide free public education for students with special needs.

Friday's decision from a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholds a ruling by U.S. District Judge Lawrence Piersol of Sioux Falls, who determined the South Dakota Legislature had given the Board of Regents the power to run state colleges and the School for the Deaf as the board sees fit.

Lawyers for the parents who filed the lawsuit did not immediately return calls seeking comment Monday.

Jack Warner, executive director of the Board of Regents, said he's pleased that the appeals court upheld the state's flexibility in offering education to hearing-impaired students. Even though no students remain on the School for the Deaf campus, the school continues to provide services to students in other locations, he said.

"I've maintained that we're not really closing the school. We're simply changing the delivery system and locating students in an environment where they can interact with their peers. I think there's good value in that," Warner said.

About 400 deaf or hearing-impaired students attend local schools throughout the state and fewer than 20 are served through contracts with two school districts in the Sioux Falls area, according to Board of Regents officials.

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