Parents call for policy changes at the SD School for the Blind and Visually Impaired

Published: Jan. 26, 2023 at 7:20 PM CST
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ABERDEEN, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - Parents and teachers are concerned about the policies at the SDSBVI put in place by the most recent administration.

Vincent Stuwe is 16 years old and visually impaired. Vinny had been enrolled in the South Dakota School for the Blind and Visually Impaired since he was six years old.

Vinny’s mother, Krystal Stuwe, said she was happy with the education Vinny was receiving.

“We had no complaints. Actually, they knew what Vinny needed before we did. We hardly ever had to advocate for any services for him because they did it so well,” said Stuwe.

That changed when a new superintendent and administration came to the school in 2020.

”New administration came in and began to very quickly cut his services in the Expanded Core Curriculum, which really eliminates community-based instruction, which is navigation skills, how to get out and about in your community. It’s all of the things that you would envision that a specialty school for the blind should have,” said Stuwe.

Beth Lopes is a former teacher at the SDSBVI. She said ECC and community-based instruction give visually-impaired students the skills they need to be independent.

“When you look at community-based instruction, that’s where they’re headed for. You’re teaching them, in the community, about a lot of different things, about how to handle money, about mobility,” said Lopes.

Stuwe said that instead of practicing skills like walking across a street or swimming, the students were limited to the classroom.

”What changed after new administration came in was, basically, instead of practicing those skills of the ECC, like swimming, they would talk about swimming for 20 minutes and how great it would be,” said Stuwe.

Stuwe said she wanted to file a complaint about the administration’s changes to the curriculum, and she started by going to the Department of Education.

“What we discovered was that we could go through the Department of Education and file that grievance, but it would fall back on our home school district, which wasn’t the problem,” said Stuwe.

She was then redirected to file a complaint with the South Dakota Board of Regents, which governs the SDSBVI.

“When we tried to find the forms and the process for that, we soon discovered that there was no process. We were told to send our concerns to the general inbox for the Board of Regents, and Dr. Maher and the legal counsel would then decide how to handle that,” said Stuwe.

Stuwe’s concerns were met with little response.

”Generally speaking, those complaints were completely ignored or we were given blanket statements about nothing really, just basically blowing us off,” said Stuwe.

It seemed impossible to have her concerns heard, and Stuwe grew more frustrated.

“I couldn’t believe that the Board of Regents wouldn’t have a formal process for grievance for parents. It’s a legal right to provide due process,” said Stuwe.

Ultimately, Vinny and his parents made the decision to pull him out of the SDSBVI.

“Vinny was, ultimately, the deciding factor in that when he said he no longer felt safe at the school. He did not want to go back. That’s when we made the decision to pull him out,” said Stuwe.

Lopes also made the decision to leave the SDSBVI.

”I really was having difficulty following the code of ethics that I have accepted as a teacher, and I came to the conclusion that the best thing for me would be to take early retirement,” said Lopes.

Lopes now privately instructs Vinny twice a week at the K.O. Lee Public Library in Aberdeen. Vinny said he’s happier this way.

”I’m getting more reading and writing, more math, more community-based instruction, more motation and mobility,” said Vinny.

The Stuwes weren’t the only family struggling with the administration at the SDSBVI.

Taylor Barbato said the administration made her jump through hoops to get her three-year-old daughter, Nora, admitted into the school. Initially, Nora’s application was declined, and after a week, the superintendent told Barbato that the reason was because Nora needed additional testing. After Nora completed the testing, she was put on a waitlist.

“I really did not understand why my daughter was being treated differently than every other student that had been sent there in the past. Everybody had agreed that that was the best place for her,” said Barbato.

Nora was finally admitted into the SDSBVI after Barbato emailed state legislators and the Board of Regents.

“I trusted that these were people who wanted to see my daughter receive the services and the care and the education that she is legally entitled to. To have that turned around on me and have it be the exact opposite where it seemed like they were doing everything they could to keep that from her was extremely upsetting,” said Barbato.

Although Nora is now enrolled in the SDSBVI, Barbato says more changes need to happen.

“It’s not just about the education there. With the Expanded Core Curriculum, they’re teaching them how to live life without their vision. If they don’t have those things taught to them, then they aren’t going to be able to exist in the world as adults in the way that the rest of us are able to. It’s the difference between her being dependent on people for the rest of her life and her being a functional person who can take care of herself,” said Barbato.

When reached out to regarding the concerns of parents, the South Dakota Board of Regents gave the following statement to Dakota News Now:

“Our special schools, the South Dakota School for the Blind and Visually Impaired and the South Dakota School for the Deaf, are both essential members of the Board of Regents. We are committed to serving these communities and empowering these students. We have been in contact with many families and stakeholders for the SDSBVI and will continue those conversations as we move forward. In addition, we work closely with the South Dakota Department of Education to ensure compliance with applicable regulation as we strive to address the individual educational needs of our students. We are currently in the process of accepting applications for a new superintendent. Dan Trefz’s notice of resignation was submitted on December 1, 2022, and he will fulfill his current contract, which runs through June 2023.”

Stuwe says a change in the administration is just a short-term solution.

“It could happen again, and we don’t want that. A new administration is, of course, the quick and easy fix. It may not seem quick and easy, but it is,” said Stuwe.

Stuwe and other parents of students at the SDSBVI began reaching out for help to propose permanent policy changes for the school.

“Our state and national organizations for the blind and visually-impaired were now involved and giving us advice because we didn’t know what to do,” said Stuwe.

Those organizations include the American Council for the Blind, the South Dakota Association for the Blind and the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired.

Based on the advice from the organizations, Stuwe and other parents drafted a proposal to make changes to state laws that require the SDSBVI to hire a superintendent with credentials in serving the blind or visually impaired, seek national accreditation for Expanded Core Curriculum standards and provide a due process standard specific to the SDSBVI.

Stuwe said she would also like to see an advisory council created for the SDSBVI.

“Along with those codified law changes that we proposed, we also are hoping to have an advisory council for that school that will have a little bit of authority in certain things in the school are decided. It’s pretty obvious that the Board of Regents doesn’t have the time or the oversight to manage some of these issues, and we’re hoping that more of a local board or advisory council will help the situation,” said Stuwe.

The group met with District 3 Representatives Carl Perry and Brandi Schaefbauer and Senator Al Novstrup. They gave the legislators their proposal in hopes that it will be presented to the Board of Education. Stuwe says that making permanent policy changes at the SDSBVI is her priority.

“What we need is something that will legally protect our students and how that school is ran. I think that that perhaps is going to be the silver lining in all this, that we could maybe get some really good changes,” said Stuwe.

When reached out to about the concerns regarding the administration, SDSBVI Superintendent Dan Trefz gave the following statement to Dakota News Now:

“The South Dakota School for the Blind and Visually Impaired works very closely with the South Dakota Department of Education and the South Dakota Board of Regents. As a South Dakota Accredited Special School, we comply with all relevant statewide regulations. SDSBVI does its best to serve the blind and visually impaired community, whether that takes place within our walls or through outreach. We will continue to educate those students in the way that best suits their needs, and meets the responsibilities of their home school districts.”