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New Jersey lawyer focusing on special education law and employment law

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Are IEPs Necessary for Service Animals?

In a very controversial and widely publicized case in Illinois that involves a child with autism who wants to bring his service dog to school, the school district is arguing (among other things) that the child cannot bring his service dog to school because it is not in the child’s IEP. It will be interesting to see how a judge responds to that argument.

In a previous blog post, I discussed the law and issues relating to service animals who accompany children with disabilities to school. Thus far, I have not discussed whether it is necessary to have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) in order to bring a service animal to school. Those of you who have been reading my blog for some time probably know the answer to this question.

Caption: A boxer dog lies down with her head on a laptop.

Briefly, an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is a written document that consist of goals and objectives agreed to by the parents and school district on behalf of an eligible child with a disability. The IEP will also contain the necessary accommodations, modifications, and services that the school must provide in order for the eligible child to gain a meaningful and beneficial education.

The IEP is governed by a federal law known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA [but commonly referred to as IDEA]), which guarantees eligible children a free and appropriate education.

Ideally, and when appropriate, the IEP should be designed to address the child’s educational, developmental, social, and functional needs. Thus, once a child has been identified as an eligible child, parents and the school district will meet to discuss what accommodations the child needs, what modifications are necessary for the child, and what other services the child requires in order to develop intellectually, physically, and emotionally. For additional information on IEPs, I recommend visiting Jennifer Laviano’s Connecticut Special Education Lawyer blog, the A2D Educational Advocates blog, and The WrightsLaw Way.

There seems to be conflicting information on the internet whether service animals are required to be in the IEP. This confusion is natural because the Individual with Disabilities Education Improvement Act is complex, and there are other federal disability laws at play: The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Both the ADA and Section 504 prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability. Virtually all schools are covered by the ADA, and schools that receive federal funding are subject to Section 504 requirements.

As I have explained elsewhere on this blog, the ADA protects individuals with disabilities and their service animals. There is no age limit or age requirement to be eligible under the ADA. So, all individuals who meet the ADA definition of “disability”–regardless of age–are protected under the ADA.

Therefore, if schools are places of public accommodations, schools cannot discriminate against children with disabilities under the ADA. It follows that schools cannot prohibit children with disabilities from bringing their service animals to school. Likewise, public schools that receive federal funding may not discriminate on the basis of disability and must develop a 504 plan for students who meet the definition of “disability” and want to bring a trained service animal to school.

So, does a child with a disability need an IEP in order to bring a service animal to school? I don’t think so. Hopefully, the judge in the Illinois case will see it the same way. If the judge does not, it will be interesting to find out why. I, along with many other disability rights and special education attorneys, impatiently await the judge’s decision.

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