Special Education

Pet Smart

By Christina A. Samuels — March 07, 2006 9 min read
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Satin, a 5-year-old golden retriever-Labrador mix, is a teaching tool on four legs.

So say Melodee and John Garvin of Stafford, Va., who asked their local school district to allow the dog to accompany their daughter Sarah to her middle school speech class last school year.

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The school district where Sarah, 16, attends classes, however, disagrees. Satin is not necessary to fulfill the terms of Sarah’s individualized education program, the parents say they were told.

The impasse between the Garvins and the Stafford County school system, which set off a flurry of local newspaper coverage last fall, raises a larger question: How far must schools go to balance the needs of students with disabilities against the needs of other students and school employees?

Sarah, an 8th grader, has Down syndrome, and sometimes her speech is garbled. But when she puts Satin through her paces—the highly trained assistance animal knows 50 commands—Sarah is forced to speak slowly and clearly.

“Satin, sit! Good dog,” says Sarah, a rosy-cheeked teenager with red hair and a quick laugh, as she leads Satin through a demonstration of the dog’s skills during a December afternoon. Just a few minutes earlier, the two were napping on the sofa at the Garvin home, the 60-pound dog curled up in the teenager’s lap. But when Sarah gives commands, the dog visibly shifts its attitude from relaxation to attention. Sarah shows how Satin can sit, shake, and retrieve a dropped pencil, with her voice becoming crisper if Satin hesitates.

Afterward, Satin rolls over for a belly rub from Ms. Garvin. “You can’t see what Satin does for her. But it’s all up here in her head,” her mother says. Not only has Sarah’s speech improved, but so has her daughter’s confidence, Ms. Garvin says: “It’s a constant reminder.”

In the parlance of Canine Companions for Independence, the San Rafael, Calif.-based organization that trained Satin, the dog is a “skilled companion.” In contrast to another category of animals the group calls “service dogs,” skilled companions are always a part of a team that includes an adult “facilitator” without disabilities.

Satin accompanies Sarah in public almost all the time—to her therapeutic horse-riding sessions, to doctors’ appointments, even to the bowling alley. Sarah also has juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, and in the five years the Garvins have had Satin, the dog has aided Sarah’s mobility. But Satin’s biggest influence is in helping Sarah’s speech, her mother said.

Letters to the editor in the Garvins’ local newspaper, the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, have sided strongly with the family. The newspaper itself called the school’s position “bureaucratic hooey” in an Oct. 15 editorial.

Kathleen S. Mehfoud, a Richmond, Va., lawyer who represents the Stafford County district on special education matters, said she understands that it is easy to be moved by the story of a child and her dog.

“People will say, why won’t you let this poor child bring this dog to school to assist her,” she said. “But things aren’t always as they seem. If there’s been a ‘no’ [decision] made in a particular case, it’s because the district believes the dog is not needed for the educational program.”

The standoff between the 25,000-student district and the Garvins began in the 2004-05 school year, when the parents first made their request. Before then, Satin had been allowed to accompany Sarah to elementary school, with Ms. Garvin, who worked as a paraprofessional in the school, serving as the adult facilitator.

When Sarah entered middle school as a 6th grader, her mother still worked at the elementary school. Because she knew she could not could not accompany Sarah and Satin in school, Ms. Garvin said she didn’t ask officials to allow the dog.

In 2004, when Sarah entered 7th grade, Ms. Garvin said she asked to accompany her daughter to her weekly speech class, with Satin. The request was turned down, which surprised Ms. Garvin because, she said, her relationship with administrators had been cordial to that point.

The parents asked for a mediator, who suggested that Satin could accompany Sarah during after-school community activities. The family says it was told that dog dander would be a problem for allergic students and school employees, and that Sarah did not need Satin to fulfill the goals of Sarah’s IEP, Ms. Garvin said.

Legal experts say that the law is generally on the side of people with disabilities who require assistance animals, but that the issues can become more complicated in the public schools.

Valerie Cottongim, the spokeswoman for the Stafford County district, said she could not not discuss the Garvins’ situation because of privacy requirements. But principals are given the option, she said, of allowing animals in the classroom under district guidelines. At least one Stafford County student is allowed to bring an assistance animal to school, she said.

“If a child’s IEP states that there is a need for a special service animal, our guidelines fall in behind that,” she said last month.

The guidelines ask principals to consider issues such as allergies, students’ fears, and cleanliness. “We have to consider who is in charge of the animal,” Ms. Cottongim said.

Ms. Garvin said she wanted to be there for her daughter’s classes to alleviate some of those concerns. She believes the district’s refusal to allow the dog is in part because administrators don’t want parents in school, and because they don’t realize what Satin can do.

“They expect to see Satin working all of the time, performing something for Sarah. There are times when she’s under a chair. That’s her, working,” Ms. Garvin said.

Disputes involving animals and children tend to draw a lot of media attention. Board Buzz, a Web log run by the National School Boards Association, devoted a 2004 posting to a Kentucky superintendent who was criticized nationwide when he refused to let a student bring a Weimaraner to class until he could resolve safety and legal concerns. The dog had been trained to tell when the child was about to have a seizure.

The situation was quickly resolved, and the dog was allowed to accompany the child, but not before the story was picked up coast to coast.

“Let’s face it: sympathetic child (and she is, very), cute doggie, and seemingly unyielding authority figure—all the elements necessary to excite the news media and rouse public passions,” the Web log said.

Legal experts say that the law is generally on the side of people with disabilities who require assistance animals, but that the issues can become more complicated in the public schools.

Julie Lewis, the deputy general counsel of the Georgia Department of Education, headed off a potential dispute last summer when a deaf teacher at a state school for deaf students asked to bring her hearing-assistance dog to class. One of her students, however, was allergic to dogs.

Ms. Lewis combed through the handful of legal cases addressing the question.

“I was surprised that the case law was so strongly in favor of the person with the service dog, even if the person was not disabled,” she said.

In one notable case, the Nevada Supreme Court in 1996 ruled in favor of a part-time Clark County teacher who was a volunteer trainer of assistance dogs. Though the teacher did not require the dog’s aid herself, she wanted to bring it to school so that it would become accustomed to resting quietly around strangers.

School officials in Clark County, which includes Las Vegas and currently enrolls some 292,000 students, said the dog would be a distraction and might sicken children who are allergic to dogs. The court held that state law allowed assistance dogs-in-training in public accommodations such as schools, and it required the district to permit the teacher’s dog.

* Click photo to enlarge

Sarah Garvin kisses her mother, Melodee, before boarding a school bus in Stafford County, Va. The family would like Sarah, who has Down syndrome, to be accompanied in school by Satin, her companion dog. But the school district says the dog is not necessary as part of Sarah's individualized education program.

Sarah Garvin kisses her mother, Melodee, before boarding a school bus in Stafford County, Va. The family would like Sarah, who has Down syndrome, to be accompanied in school by Satin, her companion dog. But the school district says the dog is not necessary as part of Sarah’s individualized education program.

—Photograph by Christopher Powers

In 1989, a 16-year-old high school student with cerebral palsy and learning disabilities sued the Vallejo, Calif., school district, saying that it had illegally barred her assistance dog from school. The district, which now enrolls 17,500 students, argued that the dog was unnecessary and that the student’s teacher was allergic. A state trial court ruled that because the student used a service dog as a matter of right under state law, the district was required to develop an IEP that accommodated the dog.

With such rulings in mind, Ms. Lewis recommended compromise to the Georgia administrators who had sought her counsel in the case of the deaf teacher. The administrators allowed the dog to accompany the teacher to school, provided that she bathed the dog to reduce dander. The school also added air purifiers to the classroom.

In the Stafford County case, she suggested that the federal Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which among other provisions requires that service animals have access to public accommodations, may be more pertinent than the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which is aimed more at the educational program of students in special education.

“I understand that the school is saying, ‘We don’t think she needs the dog,’ ” Ms. Lewis said of Sarah Garvin. “But the bigger question to me is, is she entitled to bring her dog under the ADA?”

But lawyers for the school district pointed to a 1991 guidance letter from the federal Education Department that they say bolsters the district’s view that service animals do not have to be allowed unless not letting the animal accompany a student with a disability would deny the student the opportunity to participate in or benefit from the school’s program.

The disagreement between the Garvins and the Stafford County district remains at a stalemate. Nanette Kidby, a district school board member and a friend of the Garvins, said that the family has been asked to provide more information to the board about Sarah’s need for an assistance animal.

“The issue is still under discussion,” Ms. Kidby said last month. But Ms. Garvin said she had not heard from any school officials.

Canine Companions for Independence, which trained Satin, takes a low-key stance when it comes to such disputes, preferring to educate rather than make legal threats, said the group’s spokesman, Bill Blake. Canine Companions has paired close to 2,500 teams of humans and dogs, 196 teams in 2005 alone.

“The last thing we want is any kind of backlash against these dogs,” Mr. Blake said.

He said the organization has offered to help the Garvins. “We’ve made repeated offers to speak to the principal or the school board, but they have not taken us up on that,” Mr. Blake said.

“I haven’t felt that was necessary,” said Ms. Garvin, who stresses she wants to keep her interactions with the district nonconfrontational. “The school people I know are wonderful people,” she said. Sarah’s older sister, Rachel, 27, is a special education teacher in the Stafford County district. She also has two older brothers.

The Garvins say they’re not interested in suing over the matter, worried that the conflict might harm their daughter’s relationships with her teachers and administrators.

“We have resources,” said John Garvin, “but we want to spend them on enriching her life, not on attorneys.”

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