Published Online: January 29, 1997

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Conflicting Health Needs Put Student, Teacher at Odds

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What do school officials do when faced with choosing between the health needs of a student and those of a teacher? In the case of one Michigan district, officials recently faced, and resolved, the dilemma before the matter spilled over into a courtroom.

Susan Cares is a substitute teacher for the 1,200-student Jonesville Community School District in the town of the same name about 80 miles south of Lansing. She also has muscular dystrophy and needs to use a service dog on school grounds. But the animal poses a health risk to a student who is severely asthmatic, according to his doctor.

The male student, whose name was withheld by the district, is an 11th grader at Jonesville High School. Ms. Cares recently received a teaching assignment at the school, her alma mater.

The youth's parents complained to school officials that the presence of Ms. Cares' Labrador retriever would cause their son to suffer a severe asthma attack.

The district has helped accommodate the asthmatic student for a number of years, said Superintendent Daniel M. Woodward. Officials have taken other animals, such as hamsters and gerbils, out of classrooms to protect him.

According to the teenager's allergist, Dr. James McDonald, the student is so allergic to animal fur that just being in the same building can trigger an attack.

Linda Bleimehl, a spokeswoman for the Milwaukee-based American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, said that 15 percent of the population suffers from cat or dog allergies. For asthmatics, the number rises to 20 to 30 percent, she said.

Opening Doors

But Ms. Cares also needs some accommodation. She uses her dog to perform tasks such as turning on lights or opening classroom doors because she doesn't have the strength to tackle them herself.

The dog "pulls Susan along in her manual wheelchair, props her up in her chair if she slumps down, or answers the phone," said Michael Sapp, the chief operating officer of Paws With a Cause. The Byron Center, Mich.-based nonprofit group trains animals to assist the disabled. It has 1,200 dogs in homes around the country, including the dog it placed with Ms. Cares eight months ago.

Although the Labrador's chores may seem menial, Mr. Sapp said, her absence can have serious implications for Ms. Cares. Several weeks ago, Ms. Cares voluntarily left the dog at home while the situation was being negotiated, and got stuck outside a school building in the cold until someone saw her and let her in. Ms. Cares could not open the door, a task the dog could have performed for her.

At least for now, the issue has been settled. The teacher decided this month that she would not bring the dog to the high school. For its part, the district has agreed to provide Ms. Cares with an aide to help with the school tasks that her dog would normally do.

Mr. Woodward said he was happy that a resolution was reached without legal action. "We tried to help everyone as well as we knew how," he said.

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