Society

Family Wins Legal Battle With School District Over Disabled Child's Service Dog

| by Tony Tran
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Although Stevie might appear to be a regular dog, the white-and-tan Staffordshire terrier is anything but.

While he loves licking the faces of his owner and playing with kids, he has one special talent that separates him from the rest: Stevie will save a little boy's life when he is having a seizure or trouble breathing.

The lucky child's name is Anthony Merchante, 7, and he suffers from cerebral palsy, a condition which inhibits muscle and motor function due to damage in the brain. Along with that, he suffers from a variety of other disabilities including spastic paralysis, a seizure disorder, and he is unable to speak. Relying on a wheelchair to move around, Stevie accompanies him much of the time. 

While Stevie has saved Anthony's life on several occasions, his mother Monica Alboniga has fought a legal battle for two years trying to get the Broward County School Board to allow the 4-year-old dog to accompany him on campus. And for two years the school administrators have told the family that Stevie could not be in school.

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However, after taking the issue to a federal judge, the previous decisions have been overturned.

In fact, the district got reprimanded last week when U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom ruled that Anthony's canine companion should be allowed to accompany him throughout his schooling, and without the requirements the school wished to add to the matter.

According to Alboniga, Stevie "has saved Anthony's life. I feel completely safe every time he is with the dog, because I know the dog will look for help." 

"The district has always permitted the service dog at the school," said Tracy Clark, a spokeswoman for the district. Alboniga "pursued the lawsuit as the parties differ somewhat in the interpretation of the federal regulations governing service animals. The district's legal department is reviewing and analyzing the order."

However, if the district did win the case, Alboniga's lawyer said that the dog would have been expelled. 

Alboniga, 37, is a single mother who was able to attain Stevie, a trained assistance dog, who can help in a variety of ways. He will step on Anthony's wheelchair and lay on his lap, stabilizing his head so his airway is free for him to breathe.

"Stevie was also trained to 'tell' or 'alert' human responders in the event that [Anthony] was experiencing a medical crisis," Bloom said. By jumping on a sensor mat, he can activate an alarm that will bring caregivers to him. 

In the end, Stevie and Anthony were the winners of the day. Judge Bloom ruled that it was reasonable for him to be present for Anthony "in the same way a school would assist a non-disabled child to use the restroom, or assist a diabetic child with her insulin pump, or assist a physically disabled child employ her motorized wheelchair."

Source: The Miami Herald Photo Credit: Charles Trainor Jr./Miami Herald