A Kindergarten Student and Her Dog Named Wonder: What Rights Do Students Have To Service Animals In The Classroom?

What are the parameters for requiring schools to accommodate students’ service animals in the classroom? The United States Supreme Court recently turned prior thinking on this issue on its head, finding that even though a student does not need the service animal in order to receive a “free appropriate public education” as required by federal and special education laws, a district still might discriminate against a student by denying the student the right to bring his/her service animal into the classroom.

As such, when faced with a request to allow a service animal to accompany a student in school, a district must carefully analyze whether the student needs the animal in order to have equal access to the school, even if the animal is not needed for the student to access a free appropriate public education.

The case of Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools involved a kindergarten student with cerebral palsy who wished to bring her service dog to school with her.  She claimed that the dog, a goldendoodle named Wonder, was trained to retrieve dropped items, help her with her balance when walking with her walker, open and close doors, turn on and off lights, help her take her coat off and help her transfer to and from the toilet.  The District refused her request for the service animal, citing their provision of a one-on-one human assistant to the student to assist her with all of her needs in the school setting.  The parents pulled the student out of the school to homeschool her and ultimately enrolled her in a different district.  They then sued the District under the Americans with Disabilities Act [“ADA”] and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act claiming that the child was denied equal access to the school and its programs and that the District failed to reasonably accommodate her disability by denying her the right to be accompanied by her service dog.  The only remedy the parents requested other than a declaration that the District had violated the ADA and Section 504 was monetary damages for the emotional distress allegedly suffered by the child from the denial of her service animal.

On its face, the case itself addresses a fairly esoteric issue of when parents must exhaust their administrative remedies by going through the special education “due process” procedures prior to filing a  lawsuit in state or federal court.  The Court determined that the exhaustion of administrative remedies requirement only applies when the complaint alleges that the District failed to provide a  free appropriate public education [“FAPE”] to the student.

The Court made it clear that a district can fulfill all of the requirements of the Individual with Disabilities Education Act [“IDEA”] and provide FAPE to a student in the least restrictive environment, but could still run afoul of the ADA and/or Section 504 by failing to provide an accommodation to a disabled student such as allowing the student to have a service dog in school.  The Court explained this by stating that “the IDEA guarantees individually tailored educational services, while [the ADA] and §504 promise non-discriminatory access to public institutions.”  The Court ultimately returned the claim to the lower court with instructions for the lower court to determine whether the gravamen of the complaint was a denial of FAPE which would require the parents to go through the IDEA due process procedures prior to bringing a claim in court, or a denial of access to the school, which would not require them to use the special education due process procedures.

WHAT DOES THIS ALL MEAN?

At the onset, it is important to understand the scope and purpose of service animals.  Under the ADA and Section 504, only dogs and miniature horses are considered service animals.  Per the  U.S. Department of Justice’s guidance on Service Animals, to be considered a service animal, the animal must be trained to take specific action when needed to assist a person with a disability, such as alerting a diabetic when his blood sugar reaches high or low levels, detecting the onset of seizures in an epileptic, or alerting a person when a panic attack is about to occur.  If the animal’s function is simply to provide comfort to the child, it is not considered a service animal.  The animal does not need to be professionally trained and cannot be required to wear any type of identification showing it is a service animal.  While in most situations, the handler is responsible for the care and supervision of the service animal, the Department of Justice has indicated its belief that in a K-12 school setting, the school may need to provide some assistance to enable the student to handle his/her service animal.  Furthermore, the Department of Justice has indicated a requirement to permit a service animal in the classroom even when other students are allergic or have a fear of the animal.  Ostensibly, the school would then have to find ways to accommodate or assist these other students, with perhaps these other students being entitled to their own 504 plans.

In this context, schools need to take care when a request to allow a service animal is made to explore not only whether the animal is needed for the student to receive FAPE, but also whether the animal would allow the student equal access to the school programs, even if FAPE could be provided without the animal.  In light of the Supreme Court’s decision (not to mention the prior Department of Justice guidance), the scales may tip toward allowing the students to bring services animal to school.