Allowing Service Animals In K-12 Schools: What Educators Should Know

A Supreme Court ruling earlier this year shines a spotlight on the legal risks educators face when deciding not to allow service animals in schools.

As the new school year is underway, a Supreme Court ruling earlier this year clarifies the use of service animals in K-12 schools. And it’s all thanks to a 13-year-old girl named Ehlena Fry and her service dog Wonder.

In February, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of Ehlena, who was born with cerebral palsy. In 2009, Ehlena’s elementary school prohibited Wonder from accompanying her to class because they felt providing a human aide would suffice. As the school district saw it, providing an assistant meant educators were complying with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

But the Fry family argued that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) required schools to allow Wonder to accompany Ehlena, even though educators provided an assistant.

What it means for schools

The Supreme Court ruling sends a clear message.

“Schools need to treat service animals as a reasonable accommodation to a disability,” said Thom Rickert, vice president and head of marketing at Trident Public Risk Solutions, which provides insurance coverage for public entities such as public schools. “They can no longer assume having a human aide as part of an individualized education renders a service animal superfluous.”

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Thousands of service dogs are used around the world to aid people with disabilities. Ariel Re, which along with Trident is part of Argo Group, sponsors The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association in the U.K. Ariel (pictured) is Ariel Re’s sponsored guide dog.

What K-12 schools should do

Rickert offers these guidelines

1. Create a plan

Publish a procedure based on the ADA’s Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals guide. At a minimum consider using the ADA definition of service animals: “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental disability.” Understand the difference between service animals and animals that give emotional support or comfort, which are not covered by the ADA.

2. Discuss concerns ahead of time

Meet with the student, family and dog’s trainer to discuss overall concerns and develop a plan before bringing the service dog to school. The plan should address how to educate school staff and other students about the service dog, and how to accommodate the needs of others. Neither fear of dogs nor allergies warrant removing a service dog, so you should make efforts to accommodate students dealing with those issues.

3. Try to prevent the service animal from being disruptive

To ensure the safety of other students and school personnel, the service dog should have a harness, leash or tether. If that’s impractical, the student or trainer should be able to control the dog by voice commands or other signals.

A service dog also should not bark, jump up on students or otherwise disrupt class.

Reducing risks down the road

“Taking these initial steps shows your willingness to abide by the ADA and provide a quality education for all the students in the classroom,” Rickert said. “It also reduces the likelihood of legal hassles down the road.”

For Ehlena and her family, it’s simply the right thing to do.

“We feel that this really is a victory for our family and all the families with children of differing abilities,” Stacy Fry, Ehlena’s mother, told TIME shortly after the Supreme Court ruling.

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