North Carolina School Bars Disabled Boy's Service Dog

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STATESVILLE, NC -- Parents of a developmentally disabled 4-year-old sued the school board for prohibiting their son from taking his service dog to school with him. Chatham, a retriever-poodle mix, helps the boy deal with self-injuring behavior and hyperactivity.

On behalf of their son, A.S., Parents Leonel and Jennifer S sued the Catawba County Board of Education for violating the Rehabilitation Act section of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"A.S. suffers from developmental disabilities that manifest in aggressive and self-injurious behaviors, hyperactivity, lack of impulse control, elopement, and other problematic and dangerous conduct," according to the federal court.

His adoptive parents say his dangerous behaviors stem from fecal alcohol exposure and include "tantrums, head banging, wandering during the night, running away in public, including in parking lots, perseveration; pushing, biting and hitting others, and self-mutilation including self-biting."

The child's physical therapist recommended the use of a service dog. The recommendation was endorsed by a special education teacher with the county, the parents say. 

The parents bought Chatham from Heritage Specialty Dogs with a contract that stipulated that the dog "would receive training in distraction/redirection training, retrieval of a running child, deep pressure therapy, scent search/tracking, touch therapy, dual command-dual handler, stop/hold training, and other skills and tasks to be performed for the benefit of A.S," the complaint states.

The parents say they paid $7,000 for the training out of their own pockets, with help from adoption assistance and donations from the community.

The dog - a hypoallergenic Goldendoodle puppy named Chatham - had a "dramatically positive impact on A.S.'s behaviors," the parents say. 

"Chatham's constant presence and ability to provide touch and deep pressure sensation has increased A.S.'s ability to attend activities in the community, including accompanying his family to restaurants and stores. With Chatham constantly providing deep pressure throughout the night, A.S. has significantly improved his ability to sleep uninterrupted through the night and wander less frequently."

Nonetheless, the family says, the Board of Education repeatedly denied their requests for Chatham to accompany the boy to school: one of their primary goals when they spent the money for the dog and the training. 

The family says an attorney for the school district told them "that she lacked information sufficient to determine that Chatham was a service animal individually trained for A.S."

In response, the mother says that she, "through undersigned counsel, described Chatham's 11 months of extensive, individualized training as a service animal for [A.S.]. Defendant CCBOE deemed this information insufficient to alter its decision, but accepted A.S.'s offer of additional written information regarding the service animal's training. Prior to the October 15 meeting, Defendant CCBOE had failed to obtain or request information regarding Chatham's training, despite having possessed a signed and valid release of information to speak with Chatham's trainer at Heritage Specialty Dogs since February of 2010."

Without Chatham, the family says, A.S. has "difficulty falling asleep at school during nap time without Chatham's assistance in providing deep pressure, which resulted in increased tantrums the rest of the afternoon and evening." 

The parents seek an injunction, costs and damages "for service animal training costs incurred to restore and maintain the service animal's training during the period of separation, including the cost to retrain and prepare the service animal to work in the classroom."

The family is represented by John Rittelmeyer with Disability Rights North Carolina, of Raleigh.