Service Dogs in Public Schools

Even though the Americans with Disabilities Act became law in 1990, many public school districts as well as community colleges, four-year colleges, and universities still do not understand the laws regarding service dogs in classrooms, on-campus, and living in dormitories or other campus housing for students.

While Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 does not specifically mention service dogs, Section 504 does guarantee student rights to have modifications and accommodations to mitigate their disabilities. This includes any child in public schools as well as college students in colleges and universities.

More and more students and parents of students with disabilities are choosing to mitigate their disabilities by using a service dog. Their disabilities include can be physical, medical, and psychiatric, or a combination. All colleges and universities have an office serving the needs of disabled students where plans are developed and distributed to the individual student’s professors who are obligated to follow the plan. Public schools must provide FAPE (free and appropriate public education) for all students. Both levels of education should have developed policies regarding service dogs used by disabled students on campus, at campus functions, in the classrooms, and living on campus where applicable.

Because many of these places of public education frequently have not encountered service dogs before, they are unprepared without clear policies that may or may not be legal. That means students in colleges or K-12 students’ parents need to be informed on the federal laws pertaining to service dogs used in school settings.

K – 12 Public Schools

While service dogs are not specifically mentioned in Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, this act requires that all students with disabilities be accommodated to mitigate their disabilities while attending public schools to achieve free and appropriate public education. (FAPE) All public school students in grades pre-kindergarten through 12th grade and through age 21 years old who meet the federal criteria of disability are eligible to be accompanied by a service dog during the school day.

Without existing policies in public schools regarding service dogs with students who have disabilities, or clear knowledge and understanding of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act, are poorly prepared in meeting the civil rights of public school students with disabilities.

Public schools districts sometimes require illegal items such as liability insurance on the service dog or more vaccinations than are required under the state’s individual laws regarding dog vaccinations.

The United States Department of Justice has filed a Statement of Interest in an issue regarding a seven-year-old child with a seizure alert service dog in the state of Florida.

No. 14-cv-60085 (January 14, 2014).

According to the court’s statement of the facts, the service dog alerts 30 to 45 minutes in advance of a seizure and is trained to step onto the child’s wheelchair and lay across his lap in the event of a seizure, a task called “Cover” that keeps the child’s head up to “prevent airway distraction or choking on saliva during a seizure episode.”

The school board required vaccinations for distemper, hepatitis, leptospirosis, parainfluenza, parvovirus, Bordetella, roundworms, hookworms, coronavirus and rabies. These vaccinations are not required by pet dogs nor service dog by the state of Florida. The owner of the service dog in question is only required to have the service dog vaccinated for rabies according to Florida law. This is also true in most of the 49 other states in America.

The School Board informed the mother that she needed to obtain liability insurance for a professionally trained service animal in an amount determined by the School District’s Risk Management Department. The School District was to be listed as an additional insured in the policy.  Finally, the School Board informed the mother that she would need to provide a handler for the dog.  

This is just one example of the types of issues regarding service dogs used by students with disabilities in public schools. Sometimes the parents of children with disabilities receive support from their school district and school administrative staff regarding using a service dog while in school. Unfortunately, many parents do not have this experience.

So what can parents do?

Parents are not only their child’s first teacher, they are their child’s strongest advocate during their public school years. Here are some suggestions to hopefully meet a child who has disabilities needs to mitigate these disabilities during the school day.

Please note that there is a substantial overlapping between the Rehabilitation Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Especially when citing the definition of a service dog that would appear in 28 CFR 35.136.

  • Parents need to have a basic understanding of the federal laws relative to their child’s disabilities. (Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Americans with Disabilities Act 1990 and 2010, IDEA, plus writing an effective IEP
  • Parents must request that an IEP be written for their child. This would include the testing necessary to determine disability and types of treatment and accommodations that need to be made during the school day
  • If parents are not satisfied with the school decisions, they have the right to appeal all decisions made by the school
  • If after following the school’s policies regarding their appeal process and are still dissatisfied, the parents may file a federal Department of Education formal complaint
  • At any time the parents may consult and be represented by an attorney or an advocate in any or all of the proceedings
  • Parents may be required to submit a letter or prescription from the child’s physician stating that the child is disabled and requires the use of a service dog. The school can demand written diagnosis and description of how the child disabilities are manifested

If parents failed to exhaust the administrative remedies it can lead to the dismissal of their case and they would have to begin the process all over. It is best if parents can negotiate with the school district and local school administration for accommodations rather than filing a federal complaint. It is not unusual for federal complaints to take several years before they are investigated, heard and decided.

Parochial and other religious base schools that do not receive federal funding are not obligated to follow federal mandates students with disabilities.

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