Should Kids Be Allowed to Take Service Dogs to School?

Students with disabilities fight for their right to have service animals in class.

(Photo: Francois Guillot/Getty Images)

Jun 5, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Zachary Sorrells needs a service dog with him at all times.

The seven-year-old has several disabilities, including cerebral palsy and epilepsy, and his specially trained seizure-alert Golden Retriever, Majesty, helps him cope with daily life. However, since Zachary enrolled in the Cabot School District in Cabot, Ark., in January 2013, his parents have been in a battle regarding Majesty’s right to attend first grade with him.

Initially, the school told Zachary's parents, Michelle and Tyler Sorrells, that the dog didn’t need to attend school with Zachary. “Majesty was denied access to the school because school officials said they could provide the same services as the dog,” says Michelle Sorrells. “But under the American Disabilities Act, Majesty can accompany Zachary in school.”

Now the dog attends school with Zachary, but his parents must pay $125 a week for a handler to attend classes with him and Majesty every day.

According to Kitty Cone, an attorney at the Disability Rights Center of Arkansas who is representing the Sorrells family, the school is violating Section 504 and the ADA. “Under these laws, a public agency may not charge for a reasonable accommodation, such as a private dog handler, as a condition of attending the school,” she says.

“This family has sacrificed a tremendous amount to get this service dog, taking weeks off from work to train with the dog and learn how to live and work with a service animal,” Cone goes on. “The parents have driven across the country to get the best therapy for Zachary that they could find. They arrived in Arkansas, and the school has been difficult to work with.”

The Cabot School District’s handbook states that service dogs are allowed in school: “When an individual with a disability seeks to bring a service animal into a district facility, the district is entitled to ask the individual if the animal is required because of a disability and what work or task the animal has been trained to perform.”

It adds, “Any service animal brought into a district facility by an individual with a disability must have been trained to do work or perform tasks for the individual.”

The Cabot School District is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights in relation to the Sorrells’ case. A decision should be released in the next few weeks. The Cabot School District did not return calls for comment.

The Sorrells are not alone in their battle. Numerous cases have sprung up in recent years across the United States about students’ rights to have service animals with them at school. Recently, an eight-year-old with epilepsy in a Sherrard, Ill., public elementary school was forbidden to attend classes with her service dog. The girl now goes to a private school, but the family has obtained a lawyer to fight for her right to attend public school with her dog.

“There have been several complaints or cases involving K–12 schools the past few years,” says Lex Frieden, a professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston School of Biomedical Informatics. “In some cases, school administrators may not realize or understand that service animals are exceptionally well trained and capable of assisting the student with specific tasks, including way finding, object retrieval, attention alerting, and others.”

Frieden, who was also the chief architect of the Americans With Disabilities Act and director of the Independent Living Research Utilization Program at TIRR Memorial Hermann in Houston, says that schools should be aware of possibly violating one or more state and federal laws regarding service animals.

The Sorrells traveled to Xenia, Ohio, in 2013 to get Majesty at 4 Paws for Ability, a nonprofit that places highly trained service dogs with children with disabilities and veterans who have lost the use of limbs or hearing. Zachary and an adult handler, along with his parents, learned how to work with Majesty.

“In the year Majesty has been with us, we have been able to give medicine based on her seizure alerts prior to a seizure occurrence and prevent Zachary from having grand mal seizures,” Michelle Sorrells says. “We have also been able to wean him off of his daily seizure medications, because we now have warning of when a seizure will occur, so we can protect his safety. He has been on seizure medicine since he was 12 months old.”

Other schools in the United States, however, train and provide handlers to students. According to 4 Paws for Ability, a school district in Forsyth County, Ga., has multiple service dogs handled by school personnel, as does the school district in Keller, Texas. Not all districts are service animal–friendly; Cone hopes that will change as more parents fight the system.

“Cases like [the Sorrells’] help to educate both the general public and the public agency about what the agency is required to do under law, what questions can be asked about the service animal, and what a reasonable accommodation may entail for a particular agency or client,” she says.

This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.