Monday, November 15, 2010

Parents upset that Florida school won't allow autistic son's service dog to accompany him

From The Naples News in Fla.:

GOLDEN GATE ESTATES, Fla. — The story is familiar, but some of the players have changed.

The family of an Estates Elementary School kindergarten student is fighting the Collier County School District over whether the autistic boy’s service dog can come to school.

“You wouldn’t deny a student the right to bring an asthma inhaler to school if he had a prescription,” said 6-year-old J.C. Bowen’s mother, Elizabeth Lasanta. “My son has a prescription for his service dog.”

The Collier County School District defines a service animal as “an animal trained to accompany its owner or handler for the purpose of carrying items, retrieving objects, pulling a wheelchair, alerting the owner or handler to medical conditions, or other such activities of service or support necessary to mitigate a disability.”

The district’s policy, available on its website, requires prior written approval before the animal can be brought onto school grounds.

The struggle for J.C.’s parents to get the service dog into the classroom began in prekindergarten, Lasanta said, when she tried to get the dog added to J.C.’s individualized education plan, which is a plan for a child’s education that is required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

But Lasanta said the district denied the request.

The district designates someone at the school with knowledge of, and authority to, commit district resources to the child’s needs.

“As the ... representative, I noted to you that, given John’s progress, a service dog was not needed for the purposes of the individualized education play that we had developed for John to provide him with an appropriate education,” Estates Elementary Principal Francine Eufemia wrote in a letter to the family.

Lasanta referred to part of the letter that stated the district “considered the mother’s request to have the dog in public areas of the school so that J.C. could bond with the dog.”

“My son doesn’t need to bond with his dog,’’ she said. “That was not the reason for my request.”

Jon Fishbane, the Collier County School District’s attorney, said he couldn’t comment on the issue because the district and family are in the middle of a hearing, which will resume next month.

* * * * *

Pepsi, a yellow retriever with a sweet disposition, sits on the floor of the family’s Golden Gate Estates home. Wherever he moves in the room, his eyes never leave J.C., who sits on the giant couch reading a book about Clifford the Big Red Dog.

“Pepsi come,” J.C.’s tiny voice rings out, asking the dog to sit closer.

J.C. was diagnosed at age 2. A year later, he began having seizures. After the diagnosis of the seizures, for which J.C. is on medication, the family decided to look into getting a service dog for their son.

Lasanta said the family spent three weeks in August 2009 working with Pepsi to make sure he would be a good match for J.C. and getting J.C. familiar with the commands that he would need.

She said before the dog, she would keep J.C. tethered to her and he became strong enough to get out of the harness, often running away from Lasanta and her three other, small children.

Lasanta said Pepsi is there to keep J.C. from running and to calm him down when he has a meltdown.

“When he starts to have a meltdown, I asked him where his harness is,” she said. “He puts his hand on the harness and he calms down.”

J.C. also has spacial issues and Pepsi helps him stay on his feet, Lasanta said.

Pepsi helps her son stay calm, and knows what to do when J.C. has a seizure; Pepsi can catch him if J.C. starts to fall.

“When he comes out of a seizure, he is scared, especially if things are not like he remembered them,” she said. “He tends to jump up and run. Pepsi can stay on him until he fully comes out of it.”

This is not the first time the family of an autistic student has asked to have a service dog in school. In April, the Collier County School Board approved a settlement that paid William and Brenda Hughes $125,000 to settle a lawsuit brought forward on behalf of their son, Derek, alleging that the district violated the Individuals With Disabilities Act, the American Disabilities Act and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

The money will be paid by the district’s insurance carrier and doesn’t involve any funds paid by the district, according to the settlement agreement.

In return, the district admitted no wrongdoing in the matter and the Hugheses agreed to drop all complaints. The Hugheses also agree not to enroll Derek in Collier County Public Schools ever again.

Hughes and his wife pulled their autistic son, Derek, from Collier public schools several years ago. They said the school district was negligent by not amending the Pine Ridge Middle School student’s individual education program to allow Derek to bring his service dog to school and to recognize that he has epilepsy.

Lasanta said unlike the Hugheses, her family doesn’t have the luxury of moving away. She said she plans to keep fighting if the outcome of the hearing with the district doesn’t go their way.

“We have 14 more years with my kids in this school district. We can play nice or we can battle it out. But I will not have the district infringing on his rights.”