Friday, February 27, 2015

Good Dog: Florida Ruling May Set Precedence in Service Animal Rights

As much as I'd love to take my dog to school every day, I know that I can't. I'd be distracted by her, she would probably be nervous, and she would definitely be disruptive. And that's okay, because I don't need her to come to class with me. I would love it, but I don't need it.

But what if I did need my dog to come to school with me and the school district wouldn't allow it? That's the issue seven year-old Anthony Merchante, his mother, Monica Alboniga, and Stevie the dog have faced for the past two years. But! But! The fight to let Stevie accompany his young human companion to school has ended in the family's favor.

The issue, it seems, was not that Nob Hill Elementary school in Broward County, Florida didn't allow service animals, but that their interpretation of the federal regulations governing service animals differed from Alboniga's. And, apparently, from U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom's.

Anthony has cerebral palsy, spastic paralysis, and his nonverbal, so he needs his pit bull, Stevie, to keep an eye on him and make sure that he is safe. Stevie can lay across Anthony's lap and stabilize Anthony's head to his airway isn't impeded; he alerts people if Anthony has a medical crisis by barking and pressing a sensor that gets the attention of caregivers; he holds medical supplies in his vest; and he is assurance to Anthony's mother, who is raising her son and five month-old daughter by herself.

“Stevie lets me know when he [Anthony] has seizures or problems breathing. He pushes be toward Anthony. He barks,” she says. “When Anthony is having convulsions, he starts barking and goes looking for us. Then he goes back to Anthony and stays with him.”

Stevie was specially trained to the Assistance Dog International Standards, but the school district wanted more. In 2013, when Alboniga first submitted a request for Stevie's approval, she was told that Stevie needed a series of vaccinations that are rarely applied to dogs and she would need to purchase costly liability insurance. Furthermore, they required she provide, at her own expense, a handler for Stevie rather than keeping him tethered to Anthony's wheelchair as usual.

This, according to Alboniga's lawyer, Matthew Dietz, was an “impossible barrier” and violated federal civil rights laws by taking away preferences to the choices of people with disabilities. But while the lawsuit was in the works, Alboniga accompanied Anthony and Stevie to school for four months in compliance, and then the school board appointed a custodian to be Stevie's handler. Still, the school board insisted that it is not their responsibility to help Anthony keep Stevie at school (even though they were the ones requiring that he had a handler), especially since the school's staff was already trained to do what Stevie does. It would not be reasonable, they said, for them to have to bear the cost of the dog's handler (that, again, they insisted on requiring).

And here's the thing: the school's staff may be trained to help students with disabilities, but the inseparable bond that forms between service animals and their humans is part of a deliberate design, as long separations diminish the animal's responsiveness and effectiveness. So it's not just a matter of Anthony's safety at school, but at all times.

So it's a good thing, then, that Judge Bloom ruled that not only is it reasonable for the board to assist Anthony “in the same way a school would assist a non-disabled child to use the restroom, or assist a diabetic child with her insulin pump, or assist a physically disabled child employ her motorized wheelchair,” but also that Stevie should be able to accompany Anthony to school without all the extra requirements the school board tacked on.

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