Discrimination Against Special Needs Children: When Schools Bar Service Dogs

Discrimination Against Special Needs Children: When Schools Bar Service Dogs
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Disabled children are entitled to early intervention, special education, and services under the provisions of the IDEA 2004 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

One of those services is the use of service dogs to assist them, and in the case of autistic children, protect them. However, school districts across the country are reluctant to allow these animal helpers to accompany their special needs owners to school. Why is that?

Is There a Problem?

While guide dogs for the blind have been used for about 70 years and are a familiar sight to most, according to the article “Service Dogs Teach Educators About Disabilities,” most of these individuals do not receive a dog until they are adults, so the issue of taking the service animal to school does not arise.1

However, service dogs provide valuable assistance to children who have special needs in the areas of vision, hearing, or disabilities other than those such as:

  • Peanut allergies
  • Diabetes
  • Autism spectrum disorders
  • Seizures
  • Mobility limitations or loss of mobility
  • Psychiatric conditions

As the result of an increase in diagnosis of such disabilities, schools are seeing increased requests for the service animals to accompany their children to school.

A June 2011 article in Autism Key by Susan Moffit underscores the fact that the overwhelming response of schools nationwide is to try to bar the dogs from accompanying these special needs students to school, in spite of the clear guidelines set out by the ADA. In her words, “…courts are being flooded with cases of parents fighting for their child’s right to have their canine helper in class.”2

In my opinion, it’s just plain wrong that in addition to facing the emotional, financial and sometimes physical stress of providing for a disabled child, parents are forced to wage costly legal battles to gain what our children - I’m the parent of an autistic child - are guaranteed by law. This appears to be discrimination against special needs children by these school districts.

Why This Is Happening

Guide dog 2

While researching this article, I read as many news stories and articles as I could find on this subject, and it appears that there are several underlying reasons for this situation:

Lack of Knowledge About Disabilities

Most schools simply do not understand the true scope of each specific disability. In the interest of being fair, how could they?

If you are not living with or caring for a child with an autism spectrum disorder, diabetes, spina bifida or other special needs, how could you know everything that is required to keep that child safe and healthy? However, lack of knowledge is not an excuse, and most schools could benefit from simply listening to and accepting what we parents can tell them about our special needs children.

Too Much Government Intervention

School administrators and educators position themselves as the experts who know what is best for our children, but that’s not always the case. The parents who deal with the child daily know what these kids need and should have the final say about accommodations for their special needs. Instead of fighting us every step of the way, schools should value our feedback and weigh our input more heavily when making decisions that affect our children.

Reluctance to Change

Schools have routines and procedures that they have followed for years, and they don’t like it when students with special needs upset their routines. Providing special help or assistive technology for disabled students means they have to prepare extra paperwork, hold special meetings, or maybe even schedule psychological hearings or other intervention proceedings.

Judging from my experiences, they just don’t want to do this. It seems that they would rather refuse you the services and hope you will accept “no” for an answer and just go away. The more you advocate for your child’s rights, the angrier these officials become, and your chances of obtaining any special services for your child diminish.

Ignorance About Service Animals

Guide dog 3

Service dogs are working animals, not pets. However, many people just don’t understand how these wonderful animals improve the quality of special needs children’s lives or protect them.

While they obviously do provide friendship and companionship, they are trained to provide special services such as opening doors, alerting for seizures or danger, and other specialized tasks that identify them as more than just pets.

Ignorance of the Danger

It’s hard to imagine the heart-stopping terror of realizing that your autistic child has bolted into traffic until you’ve experienced it. When these children are tethered to their service dogs, they are safer, especially as they grow and become larger. A 100-pound autism service dog can restrain a child quicker and easier than many parents can in the same situation. If the child gets lost, a well-trained dog can be commanded to “Find your boy!” or “Find your girl!” and can quickly locate the child by scent tracking.

Many schools take the position that service dogs just provide comfort and companionship to the children, but in the case of autistic children, these animal helpers could be the child’s lifeline to safety. Wandering is a serious problem with autistic children.

In fact, the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention in Atlanta announced on July 23, 2011 “The approval of a new medical diagnosis code for wandering was approved at the meeting of the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee and will be implemented in October.”3

According to Lori McIlwain, chairwoman of the National Autism Association, wandering that is autism-related leads to injuries, death, or trauma and “…drowning is the leading external cause of death among individuals diagnosed with autism.”4

Other special needs children benefit from these dogs’ unique abilities as well. There are dogs trained to intervene when an individual has seizures, to sniff out allergens like peanuts, or to alert when an individual’s blood sugar drops, just to mention a few.

Why Schools Ignore the Law

There seem to be six main reasons why schools do not comply with IDEA 2004 and ADA:

1. They take the position that other children may be afraid of the dogs or have allergies to the dog’s dander. The language of the ADA states clearly that fear of dogs or the allergens is not a reason to deny access. Reasonable accommodations must be made for both individuals but neither can be excluded or isolated.

2. In their opinion, there will be sanitary issues. These dogs are housebroken. While they need to be taken outside regularly to relieve themselves, most children can be trained to take the dog outside, clean up and deposit any waste material into a trash can, and return to the classroom.

3. There is speculation that they will have to hire more staff or have higher administrative costs. This issue is covered in the ADA guidelines as well. Schools are not required to provide staff to take care of the dog or oversee the child’s handling of the dog; therefore, this should be a moot issue. However, some legitimate additional costs may be incurred and are simply the cost of doing business under the guidelines of ADA. Many businesses are already incurring these costs to comply with the law, and schools are not, nor should they be, exempt from compliance.

4. One theory is that the children will not be as independent as they should be. Shouldn’t the issue of how much independence a child develops or how it is to be developed be decided upon by the parents rather than the school? The harsh reality is that if one of these children bolts or wanders away and is injured or killed because he or she was denied the protection of their service animal, the issue of their level of independence is decided forever. Parents should not be forced to wait helplessly until their child “fails” before schools allow him or her the assistance and accommodation that they are guaranteed by law.

5. They claim there will be disruption in the classroom. As a former educator, it’s hard for me to imagine that any school could make this claim with a straight face. If they could, I’d suggest that they review their staff’s performance records. If they employ teachers who cannot maintain classroom control, they have bigger problems than whether to allow service animals in the classroom. Any competent teacher should be able to prepare a class for the introduction of such an animal and keep control of the situation.

6. There is a perception that the child cannot control the animal. While researching this story, I was impressed by the extensive training that these service dogs receive as well as the training that caregivers and children receive once an animal is placed. My opinion is that both dog and child are well prepared at the time of placement to perform to expectations.

On a side note, I am wondering if schools actually can insist that students demonstrate their ability to control the service animal by means of a test such as the Public Access Test offered by Assistance Dogs International, Inc. I have to admit that I am puzzled by this one, although the requirement for these kids to pass this test popped up repeatedly in my research.

While I’m not an attorney and don’t pretend to understand all the legal ramifications, in my opinion, these families and children are under no obligation to prove that the child can handle the dog. Again, the law is pretty clear and easy to understand. The disabled person is not required to prove either the dog’s ability or his or her own ability to control the animal.

If it becomes apparent that the animal cannot be controlled by the child, then schools are within their legal rights to demand to have the animal removed. However, they cannot supersede the law by presuming that the child will not be able to control the dog and denying access on that basis.

What Does the Law Say?

Guide dog 4

The March 15, 2011 revisions to the ADA are quite clear. In these, the ADA defines a service animal as a dog (and only dogs and miniature horses are defined as service animals) “that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.”

These dogs must be allowed to accompany the disabled person anywhere that any member of the general public is allowed to go, and this includes schools. While some may try to argue that school classrooms may or may not be considered areas of public access, I think the language of the ADA is pretty clear. Let’s take a look at it:

“When a person who is allergic to dog dander and a person who uses a service animal must spend time in the same room or facility, for example in a school classroom…”

I don’t see how it could be much clearer. Under the guidelines of the ADA, a school classroom is considered a public access place and as such, service dogs are allowed the same access as any other member of the general public.

What Are Some Valid Concerns?

In the interest of fairness, there are bound to be many issues to work out before sending the service dog and child to school such as:

  1. How would the child manage carrying his or her books, backpacks and other items while also keeping a dog under control?
  2. Will the dog eat a meal when the child has lunch and if not, where would the dog stay while the child has lunch?
  3. Would the schools be within their legal rights to bar the animal from the lunchroom because of potential sanitary issues?
  4. Would the dog’s presence limit the child’s ability to participate in extracurricular activities such as sports or clubs?

These are just a few of the many questions that parents would need to consider and figure out how to handle, but I believe that schools should allow the dogs to accompany their children. Problems can be worked out during a transitional period.

Is There a Viable Solution?

Currently, the only remedy available to these families is to take the matter to court. Unfortunately, there are very few victories; most of these cases end with the service dog barred from the school. Even when the cases are decided in the favor of the families, when you look at the complete story and the resulting decision, one has to wonder if there was truly a victory. Let’s look at one case out of many:

In a recent case (June 2011), which is being hailed as a “landmark decision,” a Cypress, California family won the right for their son to be accompanied to school by his service dog.5

While this would seem to be cause for other families with disabled children to take heart and rejoice, there was a tiny, almost unnoticeable portion of the story that disturbed me greatly.

You see, the family has to post a $50,000 bond before Eddy gets to go to school with little Caleb. According to the story, the money is necessary in case the school has to hire additional staff.

After spending the money for legal fees to fight a an unnecessary court battle - the law is clear and the child had a right to be accompanied by his service dog - I’m hard pressed to understand why it is incumbent upon the family to post such a bond and whether the imposition of the bond is legal.

So, the question here is “Was this really a victory for disabled children who require the assistance of service dogs to live life to the fullest?” or was this just another meaningless gesture by those who neither understand nor care about this segment of the population? Are schools operating in good faith and obeying the law or are they discriminating against special needs children by denying them the right to be accompanied to school by their animal helpers?

This is My Point of View - What’s Yours?

It’s been my experience that even with a confirmed diagnosis of a special need - like autism - families are forced to fight the school system for every bit of accommodation that their child receives. For instance, one year after we received a diagnosis of “high-functioning autism with symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome and ADHD” for our son, we’re still being denied an IEP for him. The school system is adamant that until he “fails” at mainstreaming, he can’t receive an IEP. I really can’t imagine the battle we would face if we tried to get an accommodation for a service animal.

However, this is just our personal experience. I’d love to hear some success stories from others who are having better success negotiating the bureaucratic maze as they advocate for their special needs child. Please scroll to the bottom and leave your comments. I’m looking forward to hearing from you.