FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (CN) - A special-needs student with a seizure disorder should not be separated from his trained seizure-response dog while attending school, a federal judge ruled.
U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom found last week that the Broward County School Board discriminated against A.M., a six-year-old student with multiple disabilities, by restricting his use of a service animal at school.
A. M., who lives with his mother in Broward County, has cerebral palsy, spastic quadreparesis, and a seizure disorder, among other disabilities. When A.M. began attending the kindergarten program at a public school in 2013, his mother decided to get a seizure alert and response dog named Stevie to assist and protect her son at school.
Stevie was trained to get help in case of a medical emergency. The dog was also taught to keep A.M.'s head up during a seizure to avoid choking on saliva, to calm the child during outbursts and provide tactile contact which can help him overcome an episode. Stevie carries a special vest with medical supplies and information for A.M.'s care.
The board allowed Stevie on school premises, but asked for liability insurance and complete vaccinations equivalent to those required of dog breeders before the sale of a dog. The board also asked A.M.'s mother to provide a "handler" for the dog.
The mom acted as Stevie's handler for a few months, until the school board provided an employee to handle the dog. The new handler, a school custodian who received training from Stevie's trainer, was responsible for walking Stevie alongside A.M. with a leash, taking him outside to urinate, and keeping other people from touching or approaching Stevie.
Although the school board developed a special education program for A.M. and trained teachers and staff to care for him in the event of a seizure, his education plan did not include his use of a service animal at school. The board claimed that it could not be responsible for the care or supervision of the service animal.
A.M.'s mother challenged the board's position in a federal complaint last year, claiming it discriminated against her son under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The mom said separating her son from Stevie during the school day could make the dog less efficient in responding to emergencies. A.M., who can handle the dog himself, should be accompanied outside when the dog needs to urinate, the lawsuit said.
Moreover, the family should not have to pay for additional liability insurance and vaccinations, according to the complaint.
The board argued that the claims were moot because it allowed A.M.'s service animal at school. It also claimed that the court lacked jurisdiction to hear the claims because A.M.'s mother had not exhausted administrative remedies available under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Bloom said the plaintiff did not have to pursue administrative remedies under IDEA because her claims were not related to her son's individualized education program. The student's mother did not claim the education program was inadequate or that the dog was necessary or relevant to A.M.'s education, the Feb. 10 order states.
Although the school board allowed A.M. to bring Stevie to school and provided a handler despite its own policies and procedures, the court has jurisdiction to hear claims that the board failed to accommodate the disabled student, according to the 41-page ruling.
"This court need not address whether the school board reversed course because of negative publicity in local media, as plaintiff suggests," Bloom wrote. "However, it is not at all clear that the complained of conduct will not recur once threat of a lawsuit is removed."
The judge said A.M.'s request for accommodation was reasonable under the ADA. The fact that some of his teachers are trained to respond to seizures does not take away the student's right to make his own decisions about his care, the ruling states.
"In addition, in assessing the reasonableness of plaintiff's requested accommodation, there is no factual dispute that separating A.M. from his service animal during the school day would have a detrimental impact on the human-animal bond and would diminish the animal's responsiveness and effectiveness outside of the school setting," Bloom wrote. "Neither does the school board contest the medical and other benefits Stevie provides A.M. outside the school setting. The importance of a service dog team has further been recognized by courts and Congress in the context of the same rights plaintiff asserts here."
Allowing A.M. to attend school with Stevie tethered to his wheelchair is also reasonable because the fully-trained dog is under the student's control when tied to him. Moreover, leading the dog outside to urinate does not require school employees to care for or supervise the animal, the order adds.
The court said the board may not require additional insurance and vaccinations in excess of those normally required for animals permitted in Florida schools.
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