Argus Leader published a damning investigative report in December 2019, which revealed that the rights of Deaf* children to receive a quality free and appropriate public education were repeatedly violated across the state of South Dakota for decades. As a response, two new bills were introduced two months ago in South Dakota’s state legislature to enforce accountability from K-12 schools in the provision of Deaf* education programs, particularly in language and literacy acquisition.

Governor Kristi Noem (R) signed House Bill 1228 yesterday on March 30, 2020, which was introduced by House Representative Erin Healy (click here to read the new law). South Dakota was close to becoming the first state in the country to mandate that their state department of education track language and literacy acquisition milestones in Deaf* and hard of hearing students up to the age of 21. Although South Dakota had an existing LEAD-K law that was passed two years ago, Healy and her co-sponsors wanted to amend it to extend the age range (Conlon, 2020a). Even though the original bid to do so was unsuccessful, proponents were able to insert a new requirement in HB 1228. Starting next year, on July 1, 2021, the South Dakota Department of Education [SDDE] is now required to report the number of all enrolled Deaf and hard of hearing students for ages 0-21, regardless of whether they are in special education programs. HB 1228 passed in the House of Representatives, 60-4 and in the Senate, 33-0 (click here to view HB 1228’s history).

South Dakota also previously passed the Deaf Child’s Bill of Rights in 1993, but it has not been enforced. Senate Bill 117 was policymakers’ third attempt over the past 12 years to mandate the South Dakota Department of Education to establish specific programs with the mission of upholding the rights of Deaf* children as outlined in the 1993 Deaf Child’s Bill of Rights. SB 117, unfortunately, died on the Senate floor on February 27, 2020, as 27 voted against it and 8 were in support.

The South Dakota Department of Education spoke out in opposition to HB 1228, asserting that they have no way of doing a statewide, standardized assessment to identify K-12 Deaf* and hard of hearing students across a variety of educational programs (Haiar, 2020). An increase of almost $14 million is anticipated for special education in schools for South Dakota’s 2021-2022 budget, and yet SDDE officials cited “the significant fiscal impact” of SB 117 as their main reason why they opposed it (Conlon, 2020b). South Dakota is considered a “minimally funded state” under federal education laws and SB 117, if it passed as law, would leave them with “little to no funding” for other students with disabilities, according to Mary Stadick Smith, the Communications Director for SDDE.

Parents, advocates, and Deaf* community members state that the South Dakota Department of Education continues to ignore their calls for comprehensive remedies in Deaf* education (Conlon, 2020b). Members of the South Dakota Association of the Deaf have repeatedly attempted to contact SDDE staff to schedule meetings and phone calls, all with no luck, and a SDDE official stated that “a conversation would happen after the legislative session” (Colon, 2020b).

Ben Jones, the current Education Secretary, has indicated he plans to work with the Board of Regents and Kim Wadsworth, the new Superintendent for the South Dakota School for the Deaf, in the next couple of weeks in improving Deaf* education.