When questions concerning service dogs arise, I turn first to Federal law. The Americans with Disabilities Act does not specifically address service animals in the classroom. In general terms, access under the ADA applies to public areas of schools like the gymnasium during sporting events or the auditorium during a public fund raiser. Classrooms are usually not considered public areas. As with many laws, the intent of this one is murky - leaving it open for interpretation.
Virginia's Department of Education recommendations are more specific:
... the Code of Virginia, § 51.5-44 affords each student a near absolute right to be accompanied by a service dog in a Virginia public school; however, this right must be qualified, carefully weighed against the rights of other students who are equally entitled to receive educational benefits at the school. Furthermore, the right of the student to be accompanied by a service dog must also be weighed against the school division’s ongoing legal responsibility to operate, maintain, and supervise Virginia’s public schools.From my perspective as a trainer, I believe each case should be considered on its own merit. Children who are very young, emotionally immature, or severely handicapped may simply be unable to handle a service dog in the classroom without assistance from a third party. Following are a few things to ponder.
Will the child be able to do these kinds of things with a dog in tow:
- ride a school bus with his service dog plus a backpack and whatever else he's toting to school on a given day
- change classrooms quickly and efficiently
- eat lunch (dog + human food can = disaster)
- participate in PE class
- attend after-school programs
- go on field trips
- participate in fire drills
- If the child becomes ill or is injured at school and has to be taken to the hospital, what happens to the service dog?
- Is the service dog able to lay quietly for long periods without get antsy, needing potty breaks or being disruptive?
- Does the service dog have fear or anxiety issues of any kind like noise phobias (fear of thunderstorms, for example) or separation anxiety?
- Has the service dog passed a public access test?
- Has the dog been certified by a service dog trainer or organization
As service dogs become more visible, handicapped individual's rights will inevitably be challenged. It is the responsibility of everyone involved to ensure that each case be judged fairly and on its own merit.
And what has happened with the 12-year-old in Fairfax County and his service dog? According to change.org "Andrew Stevens can now bring his service dog Alaya to school with him".