Decisions Regarding Students Using Service Animals at School Must be Made by a Group and Consider Individual Circumstances

Section 504 requires that school districts consider a student’s request to bring a service animal to school individually and, like most issues involving students with disabilities, the decision must be made by a group of persons and based upon information from a variety of sources. In Colorado Springs CO School District #11, 56 IDELR 52 (OCR 2010) the Office for Civil Rights determined that the school district’s failure to formally consider whether a service animal was an appropriate accommodation for a high school student with spastic quadriplegia violated Section 504. In this case the student, a freshman in high school, had been accompanied by his dog at school since second grade. In 2009 the school principal banned the dog from the high school because a teacher had significant allergic reactions to the dog’s presence in school. The student’s mother requested an IEP meeting to consider adding the dog to her son’s IEP. While there was not an IEP meeting, there was  a meeting of several school staff with the parent. At the meeting the Special Education Facilitator informed the mother that the presence of the dog was not an academic matter and could not be included in her son’s IEP. The mother then filed a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights (OCR).

The Office for Civil Rights determined that the district violated Section 504 because it did not consider the student’s individual needs when it unilaterally decided not to include the dog on the student’s IEP. The school district was mistaken in its view that service dogs are outside the scope of the IEP process. In order to resolve the complaint, the school district agreed to convene a multidisciplinary team to make an individual determination whether the student’s use of the dog was necessary for him to receive a free appropriate public education. Moreover, the district was required to provide training to district staff that service dogs may be included on a student’s IEP or 504 Plan if the multidisciplinary so determines. Additionally, the training must address that multidisciplinary teams will consider information from a variety of sources, including the student’s need for a service dog.

The Office for Civil Rights made a similar determination in Trinity Area (PA) Sch Dist., 56 IDELR 143 (OCR 2010) and pointed out that holding the meeting was not sufficient if the team discussion focused only on the parent’s ability to prove the student’s need for a service animal. In that case the IEP team met but it did not give appropriate consideration to the student’s need for the animal. The student’s parents were the only members of the IEP team who were knowledgable about the use of service animals  and the team did not discuss how the dog’s presence might affect the student’s behaviors. Instead, the team focused solely on the effect the dog might have on students and staff with allergies. To be sure, OCR noted, the effect of the dog’s presence on staff and students should be considered, but the team needed to consider the particular student’s needs as well. In another service dog case Bakersfield (CA) City Sch. Dist., 50 IDELR 169 (OCR 2008), OCR discussed that school districts may offer a student alternatives to the use of a service animal, but those alternatives must address all of the functions the service animal performs for the student. Finally, and importantly, all decisions  regarding whether to allow a service animal on a school campus must be made on a case-by-case basis, and must be specific to the student and his or her service animal.

Thus, as is generally the case, decisions regarding services for students with disabilities are made by a multidisciplinary team, on a case-by-case basis, and specific to the student and the student’s individual needs.

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