In 2005, the future looked bright for Melanie Hurley. After years of struggling with reading and writing, she finally realized her lifelong dream of becoming a teacher and had just been named the Rapid City (S.D.) Area School District’s Teacher of the Year.
But a little over a decade later, Hurley’s dream turned into a nightmare. In April 2019, the former literacy teacher filed a lawsuit accusing her former employer of retaliation. The federal lawsuit arose from Hurley’s 2016 effort to get dyslexia recognized as a learning disability by the South Dakota State Legislature. The measure she supported was strongly opposed by her employer as well as the South Dakota Department of Education. Had the bill passed, it would have required South Dakota schools to screen for dyslexia and provide services to students testing positive.
Reading has always been a struggle for Hurley, who was tested for a learning disability while in elementary school, although the exact nature of her problem could not be identified. Years later while enrolled in a graduate course, Hurley finally learned that she was dyslexic. “It was devastatingly difficult as a child. I think I cried every single night from kindergarten through 12th grade,” she said of her dyslexia. “To have something that you can’t find a way to conquer was just so humiliating and frustrating.”
But finding out she was dyslexic proved to be just the beginning of Hurley’s frustrations. During and following her advocacy for the failed dyslexia bill, she alleges that her former principal carried out a harassment campaign against her and the school district failed to renew her teaching contract, instead choosing to blacklist her, according to the lawsuit.
After losing her job, Hurley applied for approximately 250 openings in every school district in the Black Hills, S.D., region, without success. Despite her qualifications, she did not receive a single interview. Some schools claimed they never got her application, while others rescinded job offers that had been previously extended. Because she could not find another teaching job, Hurley had to sell her home, drain her retirement account and leave the state to find work, eventually relocating to Georgia.
Despite promising to “highly recommend” Hurley to others, the district subsequently refused to fill out her verification of employment form, which in turn prevented her from obtaining a teaching license in another state. Her job search made all the more challenging, Hurley finally accepted a teaching position at an inner-city school where a teaching license was not required. After she retained legal counsel, the RCASD finally agreed to fill out Hurley’s employment verification form but failed to properly verify her years of service, which kept her from being sufficiently compensated for her experience, according to court documents.
The International Dyslexia Association (IDA), defines dyslexia as a learning disability that results in a number of symptoms, including difficulty mastering both oral and written language skills such as reading, writing, spelling, pronunciation and comprehension, and frequently affects a person’s self-image and willingness to learn. Many dyslexics can learn to read by compensating with techniques like memorization, as was the case with Hurley.
It is never too late for those with dyslexia to learn to read, process and express information more efficiently, but early intervention is extremely important. According to the IDA, dyslexic children who receive phonological awareness and phonics training during kindergarten and first grade will have considerably fewer problems learning to read than those who don’t receive help until third grade or are not identified at all, and an estimated 74% of the children who are poor readers in third grade will remain so in ninth grade and likely won’t read well as adults either.
As of 2019, all states but seven – Hawaii, Idaho, Michigan, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wisconsin – have some sort of dyslexia law on their books. But even if a state doesn’t have a specific law addressing dyslexia, federal law and the U.S. Department of Education have formally recognized dyslexia and include a statement about the condition in Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and 504 Plans.
Melanie Hurley said of RCASD in 2005: “The district is so far above and beyond (other school districts). It has a global perspective, and we’re on the cutting edge with literacy and math. Students come first.” However, Hurley’s opinion of her former employer has changed dramatically since that time, according to the allegations made in her complaint – “severe mental, emotional, and physical distress, loss of earnings and benefits” – dire consequences for a decorated teacher who claims she was only trying to speak up for the rights of disabled students.