Thursday, March 17, 2011

NC parents sue to allow service dog of disabled boy in school classroom

From McClatchy Newspapers:

CHARLOTTE, N.C. A disabled boy and his dog are at the heart of a lawsuit claiming a North Carolina school district must allow the 4-year-old to bring his service animal to class.

Ayden Silva of Vale has disabilities caused by fetal alcohol syndrome. His dog, Chatham, is a Golden Retriever-poodle mix (or Golden Doodle) trained to calm Ayden's tantrums and prevent the boy from hurting himself. Such service dogs have long been associated with blind people but are increasingly used to treat symptoms of autism and other psychological disorders.

Service animals are widely accepted in schools and other public places, though it's unclear how common it is for such young children to rely on - and manage - service dogs.

Ayden's parents, who filed the federal lawsuit March 14, say without Chatham, their son can't learn in school. Barring the dog from school, they say, violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"I sent my son to school with the tool that he needed to succeed," says mother Jennifer Silva. "I set him up for success and now he's being told that he can't use that tool."

Catawba County Schools officials Monday declined to talk about specifics of the case, which they say involves confidential student information. They said they "worked diligently" to meet Ayden's needs.

In a statement, the school system's attorney said: "Catawba County Board of Education is committed to the needs, rights and protection of all persons with disabilities and denies allegations that the school system has discriminated against this student."

Ayden was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and was adopted by the Silvas at 8 months old. He's hyperactive and has obsessive-compulsive tendencies. He also has wandered from the house at night.

When he becomes overstimulated, he has what his mother calls a "meltdown," crashing to the floor and repeatedly banging his head.

"Prior to Chatham, we did not leave home with (Ayden) for almost six months with the exception of doctors' visits and therapy visits," Jennifer Silva said.

"If any stranger said 'Oh, what a cute little boy,' it would send him into a meltdown. Fluorescent lights at Wal-Mart, even the automatic doors would send him into a meltdown."

The family tried several types of therapy with little success. Then Silva learned about service dogs' success with children like Ayden.

She contacted an Atlanta couple whose child also had problems related to fetal alcohol syndrome and improved after getting a service dog. The Silvas spent $7,500 to buy and train Chatham, who came into their home in Vale in September 2009.

Things got better for Ayden, his parents say. The boy had fewer meltdowns, according to the suit, and they weren't as severe. He began sleeping through the night.

And the Silvas began thinking their son could attend public school.

Last year, they enrolled Ayden in pre-kindergarten at Mountain View Elementary School, but school officials said the dog would have to stay home. A school spokeswoman declined Monday to describe the district's policy on service animals in classrooms, but an online policy manual says the system accords rights to students with disabilities as required by state and federal laws.

School officials met with Ayden's parents several times but were unable to reach an agreement. The lawsuit seeks an injunction allowing Chatham in classrooms and payment to reinforce the dog's training.

John Rittelmeyer, one of the Silvas' attorneys, said school officials suggested they are uneasy with a service animal being placed under the control of someone so young. They've also said Ayden's teachers and other school staff are trained professionals who can manage the boy's outbursts, Rittelmeyer said.

For now, the boy and his dog are separated for about seven hours a day. His mother worries Chatham will forget the training that has helped her son. And Ayden, she says, fears the dog will now leave the boy's life entirely.

"He literally sleeps holding the leash at night," Silva says.