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District won't provide staff handler for service dog

Parents want their autistic son to attend school with his dog, Kai


Photo Credit: GAZETTE PHOTO: BARBARA SHERMAN - Under Scott McDonald's supervision, his 6-year-old son John walks through their Sherwood home attached to his autism service dog Kai while little brother Wesley plays in the background.Scott and Jennifer McDonald filed a complaint with the Department of Justice over the Sherwood School District’s refusal to allow their autistic son’s service dog to accompany him to school without a handler for the dog.

The couple’s life has been in limbo since they were told their autistic 6-year-old son John was not allowed to have his service dog Kai with him at Middleton Elementary School unless they provided a handler for the dog.

Lawyers for the McDonalds and the Sherwood School District worked on the issue, but the McDonalds learned Dec. 12 that the district was standing firm in its decision.

The school district issued the following statement: “The district believes the request you have made for assistance by district staff constitutes care and supervision of the animal, which a public entity is not required to do under the applicable ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) service animal regulations.

“Likewise, given the applicable regulations, the district must respectfully decline your request for the staff to provide such assistance on a trial basis. The district, however, continues to welcome Kai to school as the student’s service animal but would not be providing the district staff assistance you have requested.”

Scott reacted with the following statement: “We are very disappointed in the district decision to continue to deny John’s service dog from attending public school unless we provide a dedicated animal handler. We have filed a complaint with the Department of Justice to pursue this issue.

“Currently, John is in school without Kai, and we hope it will not last long. We don’t want the bond between John and his autism service dog to fade and for John to regress.”

John was diagnosed with autism when the family was living in Alaska, according to Scott.

“He is nonverbal and a runner,” Jennifer said. “He has no sense of safety. There are times when at school he decides he wants to go home, and he bolts for the door to leave. Thus far he has not ‘escaped,’ but it only takes one time.”

The parents recalled a turning point in their quest to provide a safer environment for John. The family was staying with friends in Seattle when John was 4 and went looking for his mom.

“He went walking down the street barefoot and alone, nonverbal, in a neighborhood where nobody knew him,” Jennifer said. “He was found by a nice couple just two blocks down the road, and the cops were called, and he was safe. Needless to say, it was the worst night of my life.

“When we returned home from our visit, I started researching how to prevent this from happening to our family ever again. As I Google-searched, I came across several different methods for keeping track of kids/adults with disabilities, but none of them seemed to be right for John until I came across Autism Service Dogs of America.

“This organization trains dogs for the sole purpose of keeping children/adults with autism ‘safe.’ There are many other wonderful benefits these service dogs bring to the individuals, but safety was our No. 1 priority.”

The family waded through all the paperwork and the application process for John to receive a service dog, including needing to raise $13,500 before they could be put on the wait list.

“We raised this money in less than two months via family, friends and strangers,” Jennifer said. “We got on the list when John was 4. The wait is one-and-a-half to two years.”

Scott said John last July received his service dog, Kai — a 2-year-old black Lab.

“We needed five days of one-on-one training, and the second week, a trainer came to the house for three days,” said Scott, explaining that when Kai is on-duty, he is tethered to John.

Working combination

According to Jennifer, Kai is trained to go anywhere John goes and all places where service dogs are allowed.

“We worked with his school, and they were very excited to have Kai attend school with John,” Jennifer said.

Scott added that the school staff got three days of training before an all-school assembly was held for the students to learn how to behave around the dog, such as not to pet him.

According to Scott, Middleton’s special education teacher is allergic to dogs, so carpeting in that classroom was removed, and a new ventilation system was installed, which was completed Thanksgiving weekend.

“Then, the Thursday afternoon before John and Kai were to attend school, I received a call from the district office asking for a meeting the following Friday morning,” said Jennifer, who brought along a woman with Autism Service Dogs of America, “as I had a feeling there would be questions asked that I wouldn’t be able to answer. Sure enough, we got to the meeting, and the gentleman informed us that they had met with the district ADA team as well as the district lawyers.”

According to Jennifer, she was told Kai could attend school with John, but according to ADA law, the school is not required to provide a handler for the service dog, which is the responsibility of the family.

“So, basically, either I would have to quit my job and go to school full time with my son, or I would have to hire a dog handler to attend school with John and Kai,” Jennifer said. “Neither are an option for me. It is not in John’s best interest for his mother to attend school with him every day for his entire school career, not to mention that the district paid Autism Service Dogs of America to come to the school and do a hands-on training with Kai and John.

“The teachers and aides led Kai around with John with no problems.”

She questioned why the district paid for this training only to ask that the family provide the handler for the service dog.

“Kai is a service dog that is professionally trained to be commanded by anyone who is holding his leash,” she added. “He does not require a specifically trained handler for him to do his job in keeping John safe.

“The training the staff received for those three days has been more than sufficient for other schools who have welcomed Autism Service Dogs into their school without a handler.”

Scott added, “We’re not expecting the school district to provide an aide for the dog as long as they have an aide willing to deal with the dog. You pick up the leash and give the command. Since Kai and John are connected, it actually makes it easier to control John.”

Taking a stand

“We have a legal representative talking to the district lawyers,” Scott said. “We are going to see this through to the end. We want other families not to have to go through this.

“Getting Kai has been life-changing for us, and we don’t want to separate John and Kai on school days. It is a completely frustrating situation, and the staff at the school has been great. We have not heard that the school aides don’t want to handle Kai.”

He added, “Kai is a tool like a wheelchair. Would the district say it takes two aides to push a wheelchair? The ADA says Kai is a tool, and he requires less attention than John does. The aides don’t even have to give Kai water or take him to the bathroom during the day, although they can.”

Richard Cohn-Lee, an attorney with the Hungerford Law Firm in Oregon City who has been representing the district on this issue, stated in an email, “First, I want to be clear that Sherwood Schools welcome this service animal and have made many accommodations to allow it (including paying for staff training and preparing the classroom John uses.)... The issue at hand is not whether or not Sherwood Schools will allow the dog in our schools. The issue is whether or not the district will supply a handler for the animal, in addition to the other accommodations already in place.

“While it may seem to make sense for district staff to serve in the role of handler, they simply do not have sufficient time to educate our students and simultaneously provide care and supervision for a service animal.”

Cohn-Lee said the only area of disagreement is that the family is demanding that district staff serve as the animal handler, and the district sees this as the family’s responsibility.

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