Service Animals and Schools - Legal Factors You Need to Know

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Written by Kevin Sutton, Attorney and Partner at Lusk Albertson PLC

A student appears in your office, toting an adorable dog. "Not appropriate for school" is your immediate thought, but then the student throws you a curveball. The animal is not a pet, but a service animal, intended to support the student with a medical issue of some sort. That sounds kind of legal. So, what do you do?

As the use of service dogs increases in our communities, so too do questions about the rights of the individuals who use them. The implications are significant for schools, where minimizing the disruptions that might come with a dog in the classroom is vital. But how do you balance the orderly operation of your school against the rights a person with a disability might have?

Let's start at the beginning. A service animal is defined under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as a guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. Service animals are not always dogs, but most requests for service animals typically involve dogs. A service dog can perform a myriad of functions that might not be obvious. For example, service dogs can help detect whether a person with diabetes has a blood sugar that is too low or too high, detect the imminent onset of a seizure in a person diagnosed with epilepsy, or remind a person suffering from depression to take their medication.

Importantly, service animals DO NOT include emotional support animals or so-called therapy animals. There is a distinction between emotional support/therapy animals and service animals because those that provide emotional support do not do work or perform a particular task for the person with the disability. For example, a dog that provides comfort to a person suffering from stress is not a service animal. However, a dog that is trained to sense and prevent its owner's anxiety attacks would qualify as a service animal. Clear as mud, right?

So, what happens when it's unclear whether a dog qualifies as a service animal? Under the ADA, a person may only ask the following two questions: "Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?" and "What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?" It is not legal to ask to see the service animal perform its task, nor is it proper to simply ask for documentation verifying the dog as a service animal. This limitation on questions probably sounds pretty odd. After all, we are talking about an animal...in school. It seems only logical that we should be able ask the host of questions that come immediately to mind in such a scenario. But guidance from the Michigan Department of Civil Rights and the U.S. Department of Justice has been very clear – the two questions above and only those two questions are the ones that should be posed.

Moreover, because the ADA contains no requirement that a service animal be registered, it is illegal to impose a law requiring service animals to be registered or demarcated as a service animal. Of course, in the interest of the owner's safety, disabled individuals are always permitted to register or tag their service animals, which can be helpful in an emergency. Notably, the disabled individual is entitled to provide training for the dog – there is no requirement that the service dog be trained by a professional or certified person.

Because of their special status, service animals are given more latitude than other animals. For example, service animals are generally entitled to accompany their owners at restaurants, hospitals, ambulances, hotels, and other public places. So if a disabled individual wants to bring service dogs – yes, more than one – in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, the ADA provides that the EMTs will have to make room for them. Of course, that's the case only as long as there is enough space both for the dogs to be present and for the EMTs to treat the patient. After all, service animals are there to accommodate individuals with disabilities, not to get a free ride.

So we've allowed a student to bring a service dog into the classroom. Everything is all set, right? Maybe not. What happens when another student in the class is allergic to dogs? Does that student get to veto the first student's right to have a service dog present? Not so much. Instead, you'll have to attempt to accommodate both students. That might mean adjusting the students' schedules so they aren't in class together. That's fine – the important thing is that you have to allow the service dog to be there.

There are still limitations placed on service animals. The service dog must always be restrained by a leash, harness, or tether – that is, unless the device would interfere with the dog's performance of the task, or the owner's disability is such that the owner is unable to use the device. Most importantly, the dog's owner is still ultimately responsible for the animal. If the service dog becomes uncontrollable and destroys equipment in a science lab, the owner can be charged for that damage to the same extent that a student intentionally causing destruction would. Essentially, the ADA does not require you to put up with a dog that is uncontrollable or not housebroken.

On top of that, some places are still off limits for dogs, whether they're service dogs or not. Basically, if the presence of a service dog will "fundamentally alter" the nature of the goods, services, programs, or activities provided to the public, then the dog need not be permitted entry. If there's a section of the school that is specifically designated for students who are allergic to dogs, then the ADA doesn't require you to let the dog in that section. And the ADA doesn't override public health laws, either, so while you have to let a service dog onto your pool deck, you're not required to let the dog jump in for a swim.

In any case, service animals come with a slew of legal considerations that school administrators need to know about. While the area can seem daunting, the basic rules highlighted here are a great first step to understanding the ADA's regulations pertaining to service dogs. And, as the use of service animals increases, we will all inevitably become much more familiar with the contours of the law. If you have questions about a service animal request, the attorneys at Lusk Albertson (info@luskalbertson.com) are always available to help navigate the process.

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