January 12, 2010, 12:20AM
Oregon schools must tread carefully to avoid unintended harm, but they should try to accommodate and welcome disabled children with trained service animals No cure exists yet for autism. No sure-fire treatment, either. Oregon parents of children with autism must instead scour the earth for the right medicine, the right diet, the right behavioral therapy that might help their child thrive in school with other kids. If a highly trained dog can help, Oregon school districts should let families try. Though state and federal disability laws regarding service animals are murky and inadequate, the ethical obligation to work with disabled children and their families remains. The Hillsboro School District finds itself in conflict with a family wanting an autistic son to bring his trained service dog to school, as The Oregonian’s Wendy Owen reported Monday. The school district says no, arguing that the 9-year-old boy does well enough without the dog. The district now faces a complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Justice by Disability Rights Oregon on behalf of the family.
The district may have good reason to say no. It’s hard for outsiders to know, given the confidentiality issues involved and the complexity of disability law. However, it’s clear from this case that Hillsboro and other Oregon school districts need to review their policies about service animals and ask a few questions. For starters: How should schools define service animals or therapy animals? What kind of certification or training do these animals need to be considered safe in a school setting? Under what circumstances should a district say no to a family? Should behavioral disorders or mental illnesses be treated differently from physical disabilities? These questions are not hypothetical. They’re being hashed out in school districts and courtrooms across the country.
Last fall, for example, a New York mother sued the local school district for refusing to allow her son to bring his 5-month-old Labrador puppy to school. (The mother said the puppy helped her severely diabetic son monitor his glucose levels. The district said the dog was too young to be trained at much of anything.) Families have sued districts in Illinois, California and Pennsylvania. In the Hillsboro case, the boy in question has autism severe enough to trigger frequent outbursts and meltdowns. The dog, a German shepherd, helps the boy calm down and keeps him from bolting. The family purchased the dog from an Ohio-based nonprofit that specializes in training dogs for people with disabilities. The nonprofit’s founder says the dog got 500 hours of specialized training. Yes, school districts need strict policies in place so that families can’t abuse the system and classrooms don’t become menageries. But when a highly trained dog can help an autistic boy learn more and disrupt other students less, you’d think school officials would grab the dog biscuits rather than call the lawyers.