A former Rapid City school teacher of the year is alleging in a federal lawsuit that district officials allowed her contract to lapse in 2016 in retaliation for speaking out on behalf of students with disabilities.
Melanie Hurley, then a teacher at South Park Elementary School, claims in the suit filed last week that the district failed to comply with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, by refusing to screen students for special education, many of whom the suit states were Native American. At the time she had been advocating in favor of state legislation that would have recognized dyslexia as a learning disability in South Dakota but failed to pass, going so far as to testify before House and Senate committees.
While making her concerns for her students and support of the bill known, the suit claims, Hurley was "continually being harassed and discriminated against" by South Park Principal Brad Jungwirth and former Superintendent Tim Mitchell, both of whom are named as defendants. She filed an internal grievance over the alleged harassment but was told by Jungwirth the day before a hearing on the matter that her contract would not be renewed.
The grievance was eventually resolved by an April 2016 settlement in which Jungwirth agreed to "highly recommend" Hurley to others.
But the lawsuit alleges that Hurley's subsequent applications to 250 open positions within and outside of the school district were met with few interviews and rescinded job offers. In some instances, the suit claims, school officials informed Hurley that they had never received her application at all.
Attempts by Hurley to contact Superintendent Lori Simon, who by then had succeeded Mitchell and is also named as a defendant, were returned with a certified letter telling her that she could not communicate with anyone in the district, according to the suit. A complaint Hurley then filed with the U.S. Office for Civil Rights for retaliation initiated an investigation that is still underway.
As a result of the alleged retaliation, the lawsuit says, Hurley was forced to sell her home and all of her furniture, deplete her retirement savings and ultimately move out of state. She currently resides in Georgia.
District officials, according to the suit, then "continuously refused" to complete Hurley's verification of employment form, preventing her from obtaining a teacher's license in another state.
The form that the suit claims was eventually produced failed to verify Hurley's years of service, preventing her from receiving proper pay.
Hurley is suing Jungwirth, Mitchell and Simon for compensatory and punitive damages in both their personal and official capacities.
School spokesperson Katy Urban said the district could not comment on the lawsuit as it is ongoing.