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Service Dogs in the School Setting

Andrea is a teenager with separation anxiety disorder. John was born with cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. Service dogs can assist both these students at school.

Q: What is a service animal?
A: 
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires schools to provide access to individuals with disabilities. Service animals sometimes help make schools accessible. The ADA defines “service animal” as any dog individually trained to do work or perform tasks that benefit an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental disability.

Q: What does a service animal do?
A:
 The work or tasks performed may differ, but must relate directly to the disability. For example, a dog may support Andrea so she can leave her family to attend school, or a dog may help John pick up dropped objects. 

Q: Are there laws about using service animals in schools?
A: 
Yes. The ADA generally requires a school district to modify its policies, practices or procedures to permit a student with a disability to use a service animal. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA) or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (504) also may require school districts to allow a child to bring a service animal to school as part of a free appropriate public education (FAPE).

Q: When must schools allow a service dog under the IDEIA?
A:
 The IDEIA requires schools to provide a FAPE to students with disabilities. Determining whether a service dog is necessary requires an individualized assessment by the child’s education team (IEP). 

Q: When must schools allow a service dog under Section 504?
A:
 Section 504 prohibits disability discrimination in schools. The Office for Civil Rights has determined that forbidding the use of service animals in school would violate the law if it means that a student with disabilities is effectively denied the equal opportunity to benefit from an educational program.

School districts may offer alternatives to using a service dog (such as employing an aide), but the alternatives must effectively meet the student’s needs. 

Q: Can a school district ask if a student needs a service dog?
A: 
A school district may ask if the dog is required because of a disability and may ask what work or task the dog has been individually trained to perform. The school cannot, however, require documentation stating that the dog has been certified, trained or licensed as a service animal.

Q: Who handles the service dog?
A:
 The ADA requires a service dog to be under the control of its handler (the student with a disability). A dog must have a harness, leash or other tether, unless either the student is unable because of a disability to use one, or the tether would interfere with the dog’s safe, effective performance. In such cases, the student must control the dog by other effective means (such as voice control or signals).

Q: What if a student needs help using a service dog?
A: 
The dog’s trainer can help develop a plan to assist the student with the dog. For example, a student aide might transfer a service dog’s leash from a student’s wheelchair to a tree during recess. A young child might need reminders from school staff about controlling his dog until he can comfortably handle the dog at school.

The student is responsible for the service dog’s care, including feeding and supervision. The school district and the student should, however, develop a plan providing the student necessary time to care for the dog and a designated location for the dog’s toileting needs.

Q: How can a school address concerns about having a dog in school?
A:
 Commonly, school districts voice concerns about allergies, safety issues and disruption to the school environment. Students who want to bring a service dog to school should notify the district before receiving the dog so that school staff can meet with the student to discuss any concerns and develop a plan.

Q: How can a school deal with a disruptive service dog?
A: 
A school district may deny a request to bring a service dog to school in the unlikely event that a trained service dog poses a significant risk to the health or safety of others (direct threat) that cannot be eliminated by modifying policies, practices or procedures, or by providing auxiliary aids or services. Before denying a service dog school access, school officials should meet with the student to determine if the threat can be eliminated. 

Q: How should a school plan for a service animal?
A:
 A plan should address how school staff and other students will be educated about the service dog, how the student will be accommodated to care for the dog and how any issues will be resolved. Planning can make introducing a service dog into the school setting a positive experience. 

5/24/2013

This “Law You Can Use” column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA). It was prepared by Kristin Hildebrant, senior attorney for Disability Rights Ohio in Columbus. ​​

Articles appearing in this column are intended to provide broad, general information about the law. Before applying this information to a specific legal problem, readers are urged to seek advice from an attorney.

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