Neither the IDEA nor Section 504 specifically address whether students with disabilities have the right to be accompanied by services animals on school grounds. However, the 2010 amendments to the Title II regulations implementing the ADA clarify some of the requirements for service animals. Although the regulations became effective on March 15, 2011, the 2014-15 school year is the first in which schools nationwide are reporting a significant number of service animal requests. If staff members are not prepared to handle those requests, the school district can face potential legal liability for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act.
The United States Department of Justice recently sued a school district in New Jersey over a family’s request that student be allowed to bring a service dog to school. The case was ultimately settled $10,000, and the district agreed to increase training and improve its policies. See Settlement Agreement Under the Americans with Disabilities Act Between the United States of American and Delran Township School District (DJ# 204-48-284).
In the New Jersey case, the family asked that their child be allowed to bring his service dog to school. Although the IEP team did not believe the service dog was necessary to allow the child to receive FAPE, the family asserted their right to bring the service animal to school under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The school district responded by asking the family to provide documentation of the animal’s training and for medical confirmation that the student’s disability required the presence of the animal. Ultimately, after six months of delay, the school district denied the request prompting the family to complain to the Department of Justice.
While there are not concrete answers on how to handle these types of requests, it appears that a six month delay would be considered unreasonable. Schools should respond to requests for service animal access as quickly as possible. Schools are not permitted to demand copies of the animal’s training certification, copies of veterinary records and the like. If your school or ESU has reason to question the necessity or authenticity of a service animal, the school should contact legal counsel immediately. Schools are allowed to conduct a quick investigation into allergies of other students and a determination of what accommodations if any would need to be made should a student need to bring a service animal in the building.
No matter how a district decides to approach service animal requests it is important to keep that approach consistent in all cases. It could be that all requests are filled out using the same form, and the same person handles all the requests. Further, schools should ask questions along the lines of, "Is the dog required because of a disability? And, what work or tasks has the dog been trained to perform?" Having a clear procedure to gather all of the information can help alleviate issues of asking the parents for unnecessary information and prolonging the process, risking a lawsuit alleging an IDEA violation.
If you have questions, we recommend that you consult with your school district’s attorney or call Karen, Steve or Bobby.