When you get a request for a service animal in school, your mind may race with concerns. What if students or staff are allergic? Is the dog going to be a distraction for other students? Where will the dog relieve itself? Though these concerns are valid considerations, you might be surprised that in most cases, courts do not find they justify excluding service animals from schools.

The school context is especially complicated because school administrators cannot only think of the rights of the student requesting to bring a service animal to school. Administrators must also consider the needs of faculty and other students and the need to maintain a safe and effective learning environment. Let’s look at the general legal requirements and some common myths to help you determine when and under what circumstances service animals must be permitted.

What are the requirements under the ADA and State Law?

The ADA and many state laws (including Illinois law) provide students with disabilities the right to have service animals at school. A service animal is any dog or miniature horse that is individually trained to perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability. Tasks might include assisting with navigation, pulling a wheelchair, retrieving certain items, alerting to a sound, reminding to take medication, detecting oncoming seizures, alerting to the presence of allergens, or providing physical support.

Myth #1: Emotional support animals and service animals are the same

While emotional support animals or comfort animals can support an individual with a disability, they are not considered service animals under the ADA. Emotional support animals may help provide companionship, relieve loneliness, or ease depression or anxiety, but these animals do not have special training to perform tasks that assist people with disabilities. Accordingly, schools are generally not required to permit them under the ADA. However, be aware that you may be required to permit a student to use an emotional support animal at school if that student’s Individual Education Plan (IEP) or Section 504 team decides the animal is necessary for the student to receive a free and appropriate public education (FAPE).

Myth #2: If the IEP team determines a service animal is not necessary for FAPE, the school can exclude it

In a recent Florida case, a school denied a student’s request to bring his service animal, which was trained to detect and respond to seizures, to school. The school argued that specially trained teachers could, and in fact did, provide the same seizure detection and care as the service dog; rendering the service animal unnecessary. The court rejected this argument. While the IEP or Section 504 team can generally determine the appropriate and least restrictive accommodations for a student, in the case of a service animal, the school district could not contravene the student’s decision regarding his own care.

Myth #3: The animal must be certified as a service animal

To confirm whether an individual’s dog is a service animal, schools may only ask whether the animal is required because of a disability and what tasks the animal has been trained to perform. These questions may not be asked when it is clear that an animal is trained to do work for an individual with a disability, such as a dog assisting a blind individual with navigation. Schools may not require an individual to provide proof of certification, training, or licensure.

Myth #4: The school must provide an adult to take care of the animal’s needs

The ADA requires the service animal to be under the control of the handler at all times; therefore, the school is not responsible for the care or supervision of the animal. What does this mean when it comes to giving commands to a service animal or taking the animal out to relieve itself? Generally, courts have found that asking a school to issue commands to a service dog or hold the dog’s leash when it goes outside is akin to asking the school staff to act as the handler and is not required under the ADA. In a recent case, however, a court determined that a student had adequate control of his service animal even though he needed help untethering the dog and occasional reminders to issue commands. If school personnel were required to actually issue commands to the service dog, however, then the student would not be in sufficient control and the family would need to supply a handler. A request to supervise the student when he takes the animal out to relieve itself has also been found to be a reasonable request under the ADA, given that the student cared for all of the animal’s other needs.

Myth #5: There is nothing a school can do about a service animal that is a distraction at school

Schools do not need to permit a service animal who is “out of control” or one that is not housebroken. The handler is responsible for the care and supervision of his or her service animal at all times. If a service animal behaves in an unacceptable way and the handler does not control the animal, the school does not have to allow the animal onto its premises. Aggressive or antisocial behaviors, uncontrolled barking, jumping on other people, or running away from the handler are examples of unacceptable behavior for a service animal. In most cases, well-trained service animals will not exhibit this type of behavior.

What next?

Drafting a procedure regarding requests for service animals and training relevant staff members will help your school properly handle requests. The procedure should include setting up a meeting with the student and the student’s family prior to the service animal coming to school. The procedure should also address the logistical steps necessary to attend to the needs of students and staff with allergies or significant fears.

For more information, or if issues arise throughout the school year, contact Caroline Kane, Kendra Yoch, or any member of the Franczek special education team.