Service Animals in the Schools
I don’t know about you, but I love reading positive stories about service animals that accompany children with special needs to school. Three recently published stories stand out: one is about a New Jersey gal with severe epilepsy who graduated from high school with her service dog; another is about a Wisconsin high schooler with a seeing-eye dog; and the third story is about a high school student in New York who is training a Seeing Eye dog for her senior project. In each of these stories, the schools welcomed the dogs with open arms.
Not all stories are happy ones. Some school districts blatantly refuse to permit students to bring their service animal to school in violation of federal and state law. To ensure that no service animals are brought to school, some schools will deliberately ignore the law and demand a court order before taking action. (Some bloggers have shared their perspectives about one case in particular here, there, and over yonder.)
Most recently, there was a news story about an autistic child starting pre-kindergarten special education classes who was met with resistance when the school would not allow the child to bring in his service dog. There’s a terrific and heated debate occurring at the Newsvine regarding whether children with autism should be permitted to bring a service dog to school. This debate clearly demonstrates that service animals for kids with autism is a tricky issue because it may not be clear if the animal is a “service animal” or a “companion pet.” More on that below.
Fortunately, in many cases, the school administrators who refuse to permit service animals to school will lose because the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability and explicitly provides that service animals are permitted in places of public accommodations. The Americans with Disabilities Act provides that a school is a place of public accommodation. So, in all likelihood, where a school refuses to permit service animals in school, a judge will order the school to revise its policy to permit the service animal. One such case where the judge ordered the school to permit an autistic child’s service dog to school occurred just this summer.
Attorneys for the school districts typically have a few “stock” arguments to persuade judges from permitting children to bring in their service animals:
(1) It is a “safety” issue. We all agree that no one wants other students to be at risk of harm. However, one important requirement of service animals is good temperament. Clearly, if the animal has good temperament, has never been known to bite, has been trained to perform specific tasks over a period of time, and performs those tasks adequately, the “safety” issue is (in all likelihood) moot.
(2) At least one other child or teacher is allergic to the animal (e.g., dog dander). This is a very interesting argument, but I’ve never seen it successfully applied in school settings. This argument, however, has been used in business settings, and, to my knowledge, has always failed. In any event, assuming that there is a student with a documented allergy, there may be work-arounds.
(3) At least one other child or teacher is “terrified” of dogs. Like the allergy argument above, it’s an interesting argument, but again, I’ve not seen it successfully applied in either the educational or business setting.
(4) The school faculty has not been given training how to handle the animal. This is a poor argument that is really designed to delay or discourage service animals from attending school.
(5) The students will be distracted by the service animal. Didn’t any of your teachers have a fish tank in science class? Rabbits? Rodents? When students are exposed to anything interesting for the first time, there’s always going to be excitement. The novelty fades away over time. After a while, no one really notices. In any event, well trained service animals aren’t distracting at all. Furthermore, it’s a good opportunity for students to learn service dog etiquette, i.e., these are service animals, not companion pets, and one should not “pet,” feed, or play with an animal that is working.
(6) The animal is not a service animal, but a companion pet (or a therapy pet). This is a powerful argument if it is true. A service animal is one that has been trained to perform a specific task to mitigate a disability. This is different from a therapy/companion pet. Obviously, the burden would be on the parents and the child to show that the animal has been trained to perform specific tasks to mitigate the child’s disability. While there is no requirement that the animal be “certified,” there must be some evidence demonstrating that the animal does what it has been trained to do. The child’s disability can be described in the attorneys’ briefs and supplemented with medical and/or psychological reports. The service animal’s training and function can also be described in the attorney’s briefs. Additionally, a demonstration of how the service animal helps the child can be given in-person or recorded on video. The animal trainer may also testify on the child’s behalf.
So, what should a parent do when the school district refuses to permit the child to go to school with a service animal? First, engage in open dialogue and try to understand the school’s position. Perhaps a compromise can be worked out. If not, it may be necessary to consult an attorney to determine the next step.
For more information about organizations that train service animals, see Assistance Dogs International, Inc., the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners, or more generally, this website.