Peggy The Comfort Pig | Animals in Schools | BOE Policy and ADA Considerations | SDP188

Many people with disabilities use a service animal in order to fully participate in everyday life. Dogs can be trained to perform many important tasks to assist people with disabilities, such as providing stability for a person who has difficulty walking, picking up items for a person who uses a wheelchair, preventing a child with autism from wandering away, or alerting a person who has hearing loss when someone is approaching from behind (USDOJ, Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section). How do schools address service animals for students? Is it common? What if it’s a comfort animal? In this episode, we step through a fabricated case study of a student bringing a “comfort” animal to school.

IMAGE: Episode thumbnail.  Pig image #3961588 on Pixabay free to use under Pixabay License

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 WHAT IS A SERVICE ANIMAL? Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service animal is defined as a dog, or other animal, that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability. It is almost a certainty that a school district has a board of education (BOE) policy about service animals.

WHAT IS AN EMOTIONAL SUPPORT ANIMAL (ESA)? An ESA is defined as an animal that alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person’s disability. An emotional support animal (pig, chicken, snake, sugar glider, etc.) is recognized as a reasonable accommodation for a person with a disability under the federal Fair Housing Act and may be a reasonable accommodation under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (1973). An ESA, also referred to as an “assistance” animal, is not a pet according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD); however, no special training is required for an animal to be considered an ESA. What is necessary is that the person with an ESA has a disability and the ESA mitigates the impact of the disability. BOE policy is less consistent for ESAs. Some school districts don’t have an ESA policy.

HOW DO YOU KNOW IF IT’S A SERVICE ANIMAL – PERMISSIBLE INQUIRY. In situations where it is not obvious that the dog or animal is a service animal, the individual may be asked only two specific questions: (1) is the dog/service animal a service animal required because of a disability? And if yes, (2) what work or task has the dog/service animal been trained to perform? If either response is “no”, the animal is only permitted as an emotional support animal (ESA). Requesting any documentation for the service animal, requiring that the animal demonstrate its task, or inquiring about the nature of the person’s disability is not permitted.

PEGGY THE COMFORT PIG CASE STUDY. You’ve just read a letter from the parents of Carol, a student transferring to your district next month from another school district in Wisconsin.  She is a student with disabilities and receives special education services. A copy of her current IEP was included with the letter. Carol has both an educational and medical diagnosis of autism and is identified as meeting Other Health Impaired (OHI) criteria by her current district due to anxiety.  She also has a comfort animal, a small pig, with her full-time at school. Per the parents’ letter, the pig helps to keep Peggy calm. Her IEP documents that since she has brought the pig to school (a year ago), she has exhibited fewer aggressive behaviors and is engaging for longer periods of time on academic work.  Her IEP states that she is permitted to have the pig with her at all times and during all school functions. The parents’ letter also notes that the current district wasn’t well-informed of the benefits of comfort animals and that the parents want to make sure that your district will fully comply with supporting the comfort pig.  The parents are asking for your school’s policy on comfort animals as they couldn’t locate one on the policy page of the district’s website. They have cited the following legal case as backing for their right of their daughter to have a comfort animal at school: In Alejandro v. Palm Beach State College, District Judge Donald M. Middlebrooks ruled in favor of a student’s right to be accompanied on campus, in residence halls, and to classes by a psychiatric service dog, which was trained to respond to the onset of anxiety attacks the student experienced as a result of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The ruling stated that any potential harm or disruption caused by the presence of the service dog was minimal in comparison to the benefit experienced by the student, and, therefore, its presence was considered a reasonable accommodation. Pig image #3961588 on Pixabay free to use under Pixabay License.

This is episode 188 of The Safety Doc Podcast published on 09-27-2022. This podcast and blog post represent the opinions of David P. Perrodin and his guests to the show. The content here is for informational purposes only. Please consult with your safety professional regarding the unique needs of yourself or your organization.


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