DOJ Continues to Enforce the Right of Children to Bring Service Dogs to School

More and more children with disabilities are benefiting from service dogs. Some children have service dogs who alert them to the presence of allergens. Some service dogs alert to an oncoming seizure. Still other service dogs are trained to interrupt self-injurious behavior, provide stability for children with mobility impairments, or prevent the child from running away. Service dogs help children with disabilities develop independence they would not otherwise have. When children use service dogs, the law allows them to be accompanied by their service dog, even in school.

Public schools, however, continue to resist the presence of service dogs, resulting in numerous lawsuits throughout the country. Just last month, the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed lawsuit against the Gates Chili Central School District for its refusal to allow a student with disabilities to attend school with a service dog unless the service dog was accompanied by a separate handler provided by the student’s family. According to the DOJ, the service dog in the case alerts the student to oncoming seizures, prevents the student from wandering or running, and provides mobility support. The school refused to allow the service dog unless the parents also provided a handler to do things like “tethering the dog and issuing limited verbal commands.”

The DOJ’s lawsuit is the latest in a series of actions taken by the DOJ to enforce the right of children with disabilities to be accompanied by their service dogs. In 2011, for example, the DOJ became involved in a case in Hillsboro, Oregon after the parent had tried for years to get permission for her child’s service dog to accompany him to school. The child was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and the dog was trained to recognize when the child was about to engage in unsafe behavior and to distract the child to obstruct the behavior. The Hillsboro, Oregon School district settled a case with the DOJ and agreed to allow the child’s service dog to accompany him to school.

In June 2014, the DOJ settled a case with the Delran Township School District in New Jersey. In that case, a student with autism and encephalopathy had a service dog who alerted the student to oncoming seizures, provided mobility support, and mitigated the symptoms of autism. The school resisted the service dog by making burdensome requests for information and documentation. Ultimately, the school agreed to modify its policies to come into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and paid the parent $10,000 to compensate her for harm caused by the school’s discriminatory actions. In its press release, the DOJ, through Acting Assistant Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels for the Civil Rights Division stated that “T[t]e Civil Rights Division will vigorously enforce the ADA to ensure that students who use service animals have a full and equal opportunity to participate in all school activities with their peers.”

If you have a child with a service dog, you should know that:

  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities, including discrimination that takes the form of denying access with a service dog;
  • The ADA applies to both public and private schools (except for purely religious entities);
  • The ADA only applies to service dogs, not pets (even if those pets provide comfort);
  • Under the ADA, the school can only ask two questions: is the dog required because of a disability and what work or task is the dog trained to perform;
  • The school cannot require you to provide documentation (i.e. service animal certification, proof of training, prescription from the doctor) in support of your request that your child’s service dog accompany your child at school;
  • The school cannot make you pay fees you would not otherwise have to pay in order to allow the service dog to accompany your child;
  • While the service dog handler (usually the child) must be capable of handling the service dog, the need for school district personnel to provide basic assistance, like tethering and untethering the service dog, is generally not a sufficient reason to deny access with the service dog; and
  • Even if your child has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), you are not required to go through the IEP team to request access with a service animal. The right to access with a service animal is protected by the ADA.

If your child has a service dog and the school is denying your child access with a service dog, you should contact an attorney with knowledge and experience with the Americans with Disabilities Act to seek advice.

For more information on service animals in schools, see my video interviews at Your Special Education Rights.

Other valuable resources include: