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March 20, 2004

Tangled web of issues: Laurent, SD School for Deaf rally

From: The Daily Republic - Mitchell,SD,United States - Mar 20, 2004

By Seth Tupper, The Daily Republic

The major players in the effort to build a sign-language town in McCook County are among those rallying against the administration at the School for the Deaf in Sioux Falls, and the controversy strikes at the heart of a tangled web of issues concerning the education of deaf children.

One issue is competition. Because the developers behind the sign-language town are planning to build their own schools, some observers wonder if there is an effort underfoot to draw students away from the South Dakota School for the Deaf (SDSD).

Marvin Miller, who is promoting development of the town for signers along Interstate 90 in McCook County, is the spokesman for the group staging a rally in front of the SDSD campus.

The rally began Wednesday and was scheduled to continue through Friday, although participants say they will continue until their demands are met.

The group is calling for a change of administration. Miller and others say that Jon Green, the SDSD superintendent, has led the school into "a steady decline" during the past eight to nine years.

If the controversy causes parents to remove their children from SDSD, those parents might consider enrolling their children in schools at the proposed sign-language town, to be named "Laurent."

Miller and his mother-in-law, M.E. Barwacz, both of Sioux Falls, hope to begin building Laurent next year. Plans for the town include a public school system "integrating both deaf and hearing children in a total sign language environment."

Miller, who is deaf, disputes theories connecting the SDSD rally to Laurent.

"Actually, an improved SDSD would mean parents in the local area would have less reasons to move to Laurent," Miller said Thursday by e-mail.

"A healthier SDSD means more competition for Laurent which in my view is a great win for deaf children everywhere," he continued. "Also, Laurent would be able to educate both deaf and hearing in a bilingual environment, whereas SDSD by law is limited to deaf or kids with hearing loss."

Miller's own children currently attend SDSD. He and other parents have released a statement accusing three SDSD administrators, including Green, of "maintaining attitudes of hostility, indifference and superiority towards students, parents, the deaf community, school alumni and even the hard working teachers."

Green denies those and several more specific allegations. When asked if he thought the motivation for the rally was tied to Laurent, Green was circumspect.

"Right now, as a public figure, I can't really address it," Green said.

The School for the Deaf - which has 65 students on campus and provides off-campus services to another 172 - is state-funded and overseen by the state Board of Regents. The regents met Thursday in Brookings, with Miller and others from the rally in attendance.

Miller said he spoke with some of the regents before the meeting, but Executive Director Tad Perry did not comment on SDSD during his formal report.

Perry could not be immediately reached for comment Thursday. But at least one state government official, Sen. Clarence Kooistra, R-Garretson, said he is well aware of the problems at SDSD.

Because of his seat on the Senate Education Committee, Kooistra has heard complaints about the school before. He said he has urged regents and other lawmakers to address the problems and make tough decisions about the future of the school, which was founded in 1880.

Kooistra said the deaf and hard-of-hearing community in Sioux Falls is divided over the issue of "cochlear implants" - relatively new devices that provide hearing sensation for people with severe to profound hearing loss. The implants are for people who do not benefit from hearing aids.

Cochlear implants, Kooistra said, have eased the transition for some children into public schools. The technology has engendered a debate over the role of institutions like SDSD.

Kooistra said there may come a day in the near future when cochlear implants eliminate the need for SDSD. He said teachers and specialists at regular public schools can be trained to work with children who receive the implants, therefore eliminating a large portion of the need for a separate school.

If Laurent is built, the schools there could absorb some of the 65 students now attending SDSD. Kooistra said he would have no problem closing the state school if other suitable situations could be found for the students.

Closing SDSD could result in a significant savings for the state. The school was allocated about $3.5 million in the budget adopted by this year's Legislature, along with about $600,000 in federal and other funds.

The state would still bear some of the financial burden for educating the students, because the state provides partial funding to public schools. And eliminating the school for the deaf could be difficult, because it is mentioned in the state constitution.

Kooistra seems ready to lobby for changes.

"I've been frustrated with the School for the Deaf for some years," he said. "Maybe the time is right - I think the Legislature is going to have to get involved."

Green acknowledges that SDSD's role has changed dramatically in recent years. The emergence of cochlear-implant technology has led the school to adopt a split platform approach, utilizing American Sign Language along with techniques aimed at inspiring verbal speaking abilities in children.

Some people in the deaf community hold the sign-language culture near to their hearts, and the encroachment of cochlear implant methodology is somewhat of a threat to that culture. Green said the technology could be part of the cause for the turmoil at SDSD.

"I think that's part of it, I really do," Green said.

"We've gotten to the point that if you do things right, the implant works. If you give deaf children a sense of hearing, they are able to use that sense of hearing to develop speech and language."

Green's statements seem like a direct contradiction to plans for a "total sign language environment" at schools in Laurent. But Miller said cochlear implants "are a non-issue" in the rally against Green's administration.

"We understand and recognize their value to parents who want them for their children," Miller said of the implants.

Still, the issue seems to be a divisive one. The plans for Laurent call for an immersive sign-language environment, whereas Green and others in state government seem to be endorsing a different path. Green sees the issue as important. He said the people involved with the rally are trying to replace him with someone "more in favor of their viewpoint."

An intriguing sidebar to the rally is its similarity to a successful protest called "Deaf President Now," which took place 16 years ago this month at Gallaudet University, a school for deaf and hard-of-hearing students in Washington, D.C.

Students and their supporters shut down the Gallaudet campus for a week until officials agreed to their demands, which included the appointment of the first deaf president in the history of the then 124-year-old school.

During the protest, Miller was a student at Model Secondary School for the Deaf, which is on the campus of Gallaudet University. The influence of the Deaf President Now movement is apparent in his dedication to the dream of Laurent, and in his leadership of the SDSD rally.

Miller is vowing not to stop rallying against the SDSD administration until he gets results.

"We are not going to stop until they are fired or resign."

© 2004 The Daily Republic