Devyn Pereira and Hannah, her service dog, move through their day as one. Clipped to Hannah’s harness, the nine-year-old is both safe and as independent as possible. If Devyn tries to roam, the 110-pound, white Bouvier des Flandres sits down, stopping the child with the weight of her body.
Before Hannah came into her life five years ago, the little girl had to be carried or transported by wheelchair to the school bus loop. Now, she walks beside Hannah. The dog is also trained to detect seizures and alert adults so medication can be administered.
Devyn was born with Angelman Syndrome, a rare neurological disorder that affects speech and mobility, and causes developmental delays, autism and seizures. The Gates Chili Central School District, located in a suburb of Rochester, N.Y., permits Hannah to accompany Devyn to school, as long as her mother pays for a dog handler. Heather Pereira’s position is that her daughter is Hannah’s handler, and she only needs minimal assistance from school staff (a one-on-one school aide and a nurse are also with Devyn daily).
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) agreed, and in September 2015, sued the school district for violating Devyn’s civil rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). School officials refused to comply. On August 7, U.S. District Court Judge Charles J. Siragusa dismissed the school district’s motion for a summary judgment (a method for promptly disposing of legal actions that are without merit). This means the case will go forward.
“People ask me all the time, why do you think the school is doing this? Why do you think that they are making this so difficult?” says Pereira. “When Gates disregarded what the DOJ said, it became clear this isn’t a matter of ignorance, it is blatant defiance … Devyn’s school is using her disability against her. Her level of delay does not erase her rights. It does not make her less worthy of the compassion and respect all parents want for their children.”
Most children are able to bring their service dogs to school without a hitch, according to Ron Hager, senior staff attorney with the Washington, D.C.- based National Disability Rights Network. But families who face prolonged resistance from school districts find themselves spending enormous amounts of time and, in some cases, money trying to convince school administrators to allow these service animals in their classrooms.
The number of legal disputes between families and school districts over this issue has increased in the last five years, says Hager. In the fall, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case involving Ehlena Fry, a 12-year-old Jackson, Mich., girl with cerebral palsy who was banned from bringing her Goldendoodle service dog, Wonder, to class.
“Our case is specifically about whether people bringing disability cases have to jump through a lot of administrative hoops first,” says Michael J. Steinberg, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, which brought the suit with the Frys. Steinberg says he is confident about the outcome of the Supreme Court case, noting that a child with a disability should not have to choose between her education and her independence. “Give Ehlena her day in court and we will prove that the district violated the ADA,” he says.
In some instances, school officials have prohibited a service dog on the basis that the district was already meeting all of the student’s educational needs. However, preventing children from bringing their service dogs to school disrupts the special bond between handler and animal, says Tiffany Denyer, founder of Wilderwood Service Dogs in Maryville, Tenn. “It doesn’t work unless you send the dogs to work.”