Thursday, September 24, 2009

A family, a son with autism and his service dog adjust to a new school, after facing rejection at local school

From Suburban Journals outside St. Louis:

He was lying listlessly on the couch, eyes closed, breathing slowly. With the start of school just a day away, he was not feeling well. He even had a dry nose.

He is Corbin, a 1-year-old, 65-pound Flanders Cattle Dog, or Bouvier.

Melissa Kalbfleisch, 30, Columbia, appeared a bit edgy because the dog plays a major role in her son's life.

Corbin (pictured) is a service dog for 5-year-old Carter Kalbfleisch. He has also been the focal point of much media attention and a lawsuit that Melissa Kalbfleisch and her husband, Chris, 30, have filed against the Columbia Unit School District.

They want Corbin in the classroom with their son, even as school officials question whether the animal is needed.

The court battle will continue, but Carter had his first day of school Sept. 23 at the Illinois Center for Autism in Fairview Heights with Corbin at his side.

The Kalbfleisches are happy their son is going to school, but they still want him in the Columbia district. His sister, Allison, 7, is a student at Parkview Elementary in the Columbia district, and his brother, Carson, 3, is in the pre-kindergarten program at the Columbia Middle School.

"As far as the law goes, (district officials) have the right to change where he goes to school if the same services are provided and they pay for it," Chris Kalbfleisch said.

"The school is going to fight it all the way and so are we," Melissa Kalbfleisch said. "We will continue the entire way because the dog is such a benefit for us, the family, and Carter."

She said they have spent $30,000 on lawyers in fighting the school system. That comes on top of the $10,000 they spent to buy Corbin.

The attorney representing the Columbia school district, Christi Flaherty, said the district was meeting Carter's educational needs since he has been attending classes two years without Corbin at his side.

"If the district is meeting the child's educational needs without the dog, it's not obligated to have the dog there, and it would not pay for this," Flaherty said. "The law requires you must educate a child in their home district unless there are circumstances that restrict that."

Flaherty said one such circumstance is a child with lung disease, who could be affected if the dog came to the school in Columbia. That's one reason the Columbia school district filed a counter complaint in early September asking for a declaratory judgement.

"It means we're not asking for a ruling against the Kalbfleisches as individuals," Flaherty said, "but asking the court to look at the law and how it will be interpreted in the future. It will give other school districts kind of a road map to go on if this comes up again."

Flaherty said proposed changes to the Americans with Disabilities Act would change some provisions, including a more narrow definition of service dog and to define benefit as an educational benefit.

Carter's mother, Melissa, said having Corbin present makes it easier to work with her child. She said it is no different than a blind person having a dog.

"It's almost the same," she said. "A blind person can't see. Carter doesn't see things the way we see things. For example, he has no concept of danger - he doesn't recognize it."

She also doesn't understand why the local district would not allow Corbin to be with Carter in the school. The dog's presence, she said, calms her son.

"He has temper tantrums and is not able to focus (without the dog)," she said.

"It's something unexplainable," Melissa said. "It's between the two of them. He's comforted. I don't know what it is. He's able to redirect himself and get focused again."

She understands why other people may be opposed to having the dog in class.

"They say if every kid brings a dog, it would be a zoo. But if they (dogs) truly help their medical condition, bring 50 dogs to school. If it doesn't benefit the child, keep the dogs out."

It's also important to keep the bond between child and dog, she said.

"If you keep them apart six to eight hours, it would hurt their bond," she said.

Carter's new school, the Illinois Center for Autism, is welcoming the boy and his dog with open arms, Melissa said.

The center has plans in place to work with Corbin.

"An aide at school will take him to a designated area to relieve himself," she said.

Even with Carter going to school, the legal battle continues.

"Where we're at now, the Court of Appeals' preliminary injunction is in effect," Flaherty said, "which means we're bound to obey the court order until the Court of Appeals either overturns it or the Circuit Court has a trial on complying with the permanent injunction."

A permanent injunction would mean Carter would get to take Corbin with him to the Columbia school.

Melissa Kalbfleisch said the school district is paying $160 per day to educate Carter at the center and has agreed to pay 55 cents a mile for one round trip per day from the family's home in Columbia to the school in Fairview Heights.

"One round trip, not two," she pointed out.