A certified service dog who was trained to help a 16-year-old girl with severe anxiety overcome panic attacks has been prevented from accompanying the girl to school in the Conway School District, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a federal lawsuit alleges.
The lawsuit, filed by Disability Rights Arkansas, seeks a preliminary injunction ordering the district to allow the girl to attend school with her dog, and a declaration that the district’s actions violate the law, as well as reimbursement for litigation costs. The private, nonprofit agency operates independently to protect and advocate for people with disabilities in Arkansas, under the authority of federal law.
Filed Wednesday in Little Rock, the suit notes that the girl, a high school senior who is identified only by initials, has been diagnosed with severe anxiety and depressive order, is under the care of a psychiatrist and counselor, and is considered disabled under the law. It says her anxiety causes her to experience severe panic attacks that prevent her from functioning and led her to miss 44 days of school during the spring semester of the 2017-2018 school year.
When the girl realizes a panic attack is starting, she begins breathing exercises to ward it off or reduce its severity, but she is sometimes unable to predict the onset of a panic attack, according to the suit. It says exposure to large crowds sometimes triggers the anxiety that causes the attack, during which the girl is unable to speak or listen.
In May, according to the lawsuit, the girl’s mother contacted the high school principal, who was then Jason Lawrence, in anticipation of adopting and training a service dog to assist her, and he approved the girl’s use of the dog as long as she had a Section 504 Plan. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in programs that receive federal financial assistance and works with the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to protect people with disabilities from exclusion and unequal treatment in schools, jobs and the community.
The suit notes that over the summer, the dog was adopted as a puppy for the purpose of being trained to help the girl. It obtained extensive service-animal training and was certified as a Canine Good Citizen by a certified Arkansas State Police instructor and K9 certifying official who is also a certified American Kennel Club evaluator.
The dog alerts the girl before a panic attack by nudging her, prompting her to begin her breathing exercises, and “blankets” her, providing physical pressure, when an attack can’t be prevented, to reduce its severity. The lawsuit says the dog also “blocks” the girl from large crowds by placing himself between her and them.
But when the girl’s mother notified the district Sept. 20 that her daughter would be taking the dog to school, she was met with resistance by the new principal, Buck Bing, and Joel Linn, the district’s Section 504 coordinator, according to the lawsuit.
While the district had already acknowledged that the girl is disabled, and had developed a Section 504 plan for her that allowed her to be released early from class to avoid crowded hallways or briefly exit the classroom when a panic attack begins, among other things, Linn demanded a doctor’s letter verifying her “prescription” for the dog, as well as a letter from a certified trainer spelling out the tasks the dog performs, the suit states.
The principal also required the girl’s mother to produce proof that the dog is officially licensed as a service animal before he would allow the dog to accompany the girl to school, it says.
The mother provided all the information requested, but at an Oct. 23 meeting of the district’s Section 504 committee, which included counselors and teachers who had interaction with the girl, they voted down the request. Some questioned whether she really needed a service animal, and others expressed concerns about allergies or “disturbance to the educational environment,” according to the lawsuit.
As a result of the vote, the district refused to let the dog accompany the girl to school.
The lawsuit, filed on the girl’s behalf by Disability Rights attorney Thomas Nichols, notes that the Americans with Disabilities Act prevents someone with a disability from being excluded from activities or denied benefits by a public entity. Nichols said federal regulations require schools to modify their procedures to permit the use of a service animal by a person with a disability and prohibit public entities from requiring proof that an animal has been trained, certified or licensed.
The federal regulations also don’t allow a public entity to ask about the nature or extent of a person’s disabilities, the suit states, noting, “The District required documentation from [the girl’s] trainers, psychiatrist, and counselors regarding [her] service animal, and patently exceeded the inquires permitted by the ADA regulations.”
By excluding the service dog and engaging in an “impermissible inquiry to support its exclusion,” the district has violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, the suit contends.
It has been assigned to Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Miller, who is asked to immediately allow the girl to begin taking the dog to school, pending the determination of whether the school’s actions violate federal law.
The lawsuit notes that since the school refused to allow the dog, the girl is having more frequent panic attacks. It says her separation during the school day from the dog “reduces the opportunities for reinforcement of appropriate behavior, which consequently will reduce [the dog’s] effectiveness as a service animal.”
The school district hadn’t filed a response to the lawsuit by Friday. Court records indicate a response is due by Dec. 5.
Metro on 11/24/2018