PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Two high school students lacked legal standing in state court and therefore can’t proceed in their lawsuit over embezzlement and mismanagement of federal GEAR UP grant funds, the South Dakota Supreme Court ruled in a decision released Thursday.
Alyssa Black Bear and Kelsey Walking Eagle-Espinosa had sued the now-defunct Mid-Central Educational Cooperative at Platte, the American Indian Institute and a list of former employees.
Among them were the institute’s Stacy Phelps, Mid-Central director Dan Guericke and two other Mid-Central employees, Nicole and Scott Westerhuis.
The murder-suicide of the Westerhuises and the killing of their four children came hours after then-Secretary Melody Schopp told Guericke the state Department of Education was ending its GEAR UP contract with Mid-Central.
Chief Justice David Gilbertson wrote the high court’s unanimous opinion. It said, in part:
“The GEAR UP program did not provide a direct source of funding to the students or their families. Instead, the program identified the following goals and objectives: increasing academic performance; increasing high school graduation rates and participation in postsecondary education; and increasing student and family knowledge of postsecondary education options, preparation and financing.
“These program goals were aspirational and meant to supplement existing educational programming. Therefore, the students and families targeted to receive services under the program did not acquire a legally protected interest in the funds designated to implement the program.
“The students have also failed to show a causal connection between the alleged wrongdoing (mismanagement, theft, or conversion of GEAR UP funds) and their alleged injury (loss of educational services). Here, the circuit court appeared to accept the students’ underlying premise that equated reduced benefits and services with ‘perceptible harm.’
“However, the students have not produced evidence showing that they suffered a concrete or particularized injury as a result of not receiving all of the services and/or programs that were to be provided by the GEAR UP program.”
Guericke pleaded guilty in state circuit court and testified against Phelps, whom a jury found not-guilty.
The justices agreed that Circuit Judge Bruce Anderson incorrectly determined the students had legal standing their claims, but that he correctly dismissed their case. The full opinion is here.
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