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Service Animals Present Conundrum for School Districts

K-12 Education Publications

Two Illinois circuit courts have recently held that school districts must accommodate service dogs for students with autism. In separate court cases, Kalbfleisch v. Columbia Community School District and Drew v. Villa Grove Community Unit School District #302, judges ordered both school districts to allow students with autism to bring a service dog to school. Columbia Community School District has appealed the ruling.

On one hand, Section 14-6.02 of the Illinois School Code requires school districts to allow service animals to accompany students with disabilities, both in and outside the classroom. At the same time, school districts are required to accommodate students with allergies, asthma or other breathing difficulties who can suffer adverse reactions to animal dander. Both of these “categories” of students are entitled to extensive protections under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Accommodating the service animal while still providing an allergen free environment presents significant practical challenges that may prove irreconcilable in some instances.

Service animals commonly serve as seeing-eye companions and are trained to detect seizure activity in students. Interestingly, the service animal in the Drew case is not utilized for these reasons (according to media reports). The dog reportedly serves the student by keeping him calm and helping to prevent him from running in front of cars in the school parking lot.

In light of the recent court decisions, school districts should prepare for an increased number of requests for service animals in the school setting. As with other requests for accommodations, the school district should convene a meeting to discuss the appropriateness of the request for an individual student. The school district should take steps to verify that the service animal is properly trained and will be safe in the school environment. If the student is permitted to bring the service animal to school, the school district should regularly assess the effectiveness of the accommodation. School districts are only required to permit service animals that provide a benefit to students with disabilities.