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U.S. Justice Department Settles With School District Over Equal Access For Students With Service Animals
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) reached an agreement with the Gates Chili Central School District (School) in Rochester, New York, to settle the DOJ’s lawsuit alleging disability discrimination in violation of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The DOJ alleged that the School violated the ADA by refusing to permit a student with a disability to use her service animal unless she was accompanied by a separate, adult handler provided by her mother, despite the student’s demonstrated ability to control and handle her service dog with minimal assistance and the service dog’s extensive training to serve and respond to the student and follow school routines. The School denied the allegations and denied that it violated the ADA.
ADA regulations require school districts to modify their policies, practices, or procedures to permit the use of a service animal by an individual with a disability. Nevertheless, a service animal must be under the control of its handler and must “have a harness, leash, or another tether, unless either the handler is unable because of a disability to use a harness, leash, or another tether, or the use of a harness, leash, or another tether would interfere with the dog’s safe, effective performance of work or tasks, in which case the service dog must be otherwise under the handler’s control (e.g., voice control, signals, or other effective means).” The DOJ alleged that the student demonstrated sufficient control of her service animal.
Under the settlement agreement, the School is required to comply faithfully with ADA regulation 28 C.F.R. Section 35.136, which governs service animals and to provide reasonable modifications to facilitate the use of service animals by students with disabilities. The School is also required to distribute its Service Animal Policy to all staff and administrators and to report to the DOJ all requests for service animal use it receives and its handling of such requests over a 12-month period. Finally, the School must pay the student’s mother $42,000.
While this settlement agreement involved a public school, generally, private schools also must accommodate a student’s request to use a service dog at school. Service dogs utilized by students must be under the control of the handler at all times and in most instances, the handler will be the student with a disability or a third party who accompanies the student with a disability.