Disability Rights Blog
Feb 10

Barriers to Open Enrollment by DeAnna Berke

This article is written by DeAnna Berke, the parent of a child that Disability Rights South Dakota previously assisted.  The child attended public school and had a 1:1 paraprofessional.  During the school year, the family moved one mile outside of the school district and applied for open-enrollment so that the child could continue going to the same school with the same services he was currently receiving.  Even though the child attended the public school with a paraprofessional during the application, the school district denied the open-enrollment request because their school’s capacity was “current staffing levels” and they would have to hire a paraprofessional.

Disability Rights South Dakota assisted in appealing the open-enrollment decision to the school board and circuit court.  The circuit court upheld the school district’s denial of the child’s open-enrollment application, in part, because a capacity of “current staffing level” could include paraprofessionals.  Based on current laws, a school district can define capacity to more than a student/teacher ratio or number of students in a room.  A school district can include accommodations, modifications, and services that are listed on an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) within their definition of capacity.

The article below provides information on DeAnna Berke and her family’s experience through this process and her current efforts.  The views and opinions expressed below are not those of Disability Rights South Dakota.




My son, Hunter, just turned 9 years old this January.  He loves sports, football, baseball and basketball.  He loves people and tries daily to connect with ones around him for relationships.  He loves hugs and talking about sports any chance he gets.  He has a heart of gold and is always kind, caring, polite and outgoing.  Almost everyone that takes time to get to know Hunter develops a close relationship with him.  My son doesn’t care who you are or where you came from.  He values everyone and just loves people.  Hunter also enjoys books, swimming and our animals on our farm.

Every time my son deals with the fact he is not allowed to go to Colman-Egan School District, it breaks my heart.  The pain and grief I feel for my son is unbearable.   The discrimination my son has dealt with as a young child has been horrific.  Hunter attended the Colman-Egan School District with a 1:1 paraprofessional.  While he was still attending Colman-Egan School District with a 1:1 paraprofessional, we were told that Colman-Egan School District denied Hunter’s open-enrollment request because the school was at capacity. The school said they did not have an extra 1:1 paraprofessional on staff and would have to hire a new 1:1 paraprofessional.  Hunter’s 1:1 paraprofessional was still employed by Colman-Egan School District when Hunter tried to open-enroll and is still employed by the school district. Seeing the school advertise multiple times in our local newspaper for a paraprofessional and then seeing in the minutes that they have hired new paraprofessionals angers and makes me cry.  Finding out that other children were open-enrolled into Hunter’s former class the same year that Hunter was denied hurts. The only difference is that my son has a disability. The school could have easily continued to provide an appropriate education for Hunter, they already were…  Instead, the school district said that their capacity was “current staffing levels” and that they did not want to hire a paraprofessional.

When Hunter was denied open-enrollment at his old school and started attending the new school, he struggled to make friends.  Hunter developed abandonment issues because he does not understand why he is not allowed to attend his old school while all his friends and teachers are still there.  As a mother how do you tell your child that because of his disability he was treated differently.  My son previously had only known Colman as his home and community.  The children in Hunter’s class have grown with him.  They have developed relationships with him.  I was told by staff that the children in my son’s class watch out for him and care about him.  Every time we drive thru Colman my son says he misses his old school and wants to go back.  We drive thru Colman every Sunday because we go to Church in Madison.  Recently, Hunter started naming all the students in his old class as we drove by his old school.  He started to cry and was very upset and said he missed Colman.

I asked Hunter how this has made him feel, and he said: “I feel sad, mad, angry and disappointed; I miss my friends and other classmates.  I miss other kids in the school, my teachers, my para, my speech teacher and special Ed teacher, my library teacher, PE and music teacher.  I do not understand why I can’t go back to Colman.  Someone is not being nice to me.   I feel frustrated because I miss my friends and I can’t go to Colman anymore.  I miss my principal at Colman and baseball coach.  I want to go back to Colman”.

Children that were in Hunter’s class ask when Hunter will be allowed to rejoin them.  The teachers, children and community cared about my son.  Hunter cares about them and wants to go back.  What is standing in his way?  When did having a disability or label in the school system in South Dakota make you not valued or not wanted?  Why are we teaching our young people that people with a disability will never be valued the same as someone without a disability?  It breaks my heart that school districts fear they will have to allow more students with disabilities to enroll if they permit one student with disabilities to open-enroll.  I am so tired of feeling like my son is not worthy or is ever going to be a valuable part of this society as shown by the treatment from the school system.

As his mother, provider, caretaker, protector I feel like I have failed to protect him from this pain, hurt and loss.  Hearing for the first time and finding out your beautiful baby has a diagnosis that will impact his life forever is hard to accept.  Finding out so early on that my son and this diagnosis would end up equaling heartache, pain and suffering in ways I never could have imagined is awful.  There are many days I want to take back the fact we moved one mile outside of Colman-Egan School District’s boundary.  Was I so naïve to believe that Hunter would be safe and that his school would continue to keep him as part of the community?  I can’t tell you the nights I have lost sleep, the number of times I have cried, the depression and anxiety this has caused for my family.   My son is a beautiful soul, a bright light, he makes me want to be a better person.  I am tired of being silent about how my son was treated because of his disability.  He deserves the right to a fair open-enrollment process and the right to be valued and treated equally.  I am done feeling like my son isn’t important, feeling like he doesn’t belong, like he is an outsider.  We all want to feel accepted in this world, to matter.

I have been fighting this battle for the last two years because my son and other students with disabilities deserve to be treated fairly during open-enrollment applications.  I am working with Representative Jon Hansen to correct the verbiage in SDCL 13-28-44 with House Bill 1207.  Based on the proposed language, a school district would not be able to exclude a child in their open-enrollment policy based on the child’s accommodations, modifications, and services listed in their IEP.  This means that if a school district creates a policy that excludes a child based on their accommodations, modifications, and services, that policy would be out of compliance with the State law.  I encourage everyone to contact their local representative to share their opinion on this topic.