School says 'comfort animals' are not service animals

Thursday , September 27, 2012 - 1:59 PM

Mark Collette

GEORGE WEST, Texas — A school district in Texas has ruled against a dog being used as a "comfort animal" in a school to help a girl with autism in a case that raises questions about how school districts should respond to changes in rules that govern service animals used by people with disabilities.

A George West Independent School District committee on Sept. 17 denied 17-year-old high school senior Colleen Molohon use of a dog to help her on campus, her mother said.

The girl’s mother, Donna Osborn, said the dog, Chili, is a service dog that helps Molohon with specific tasks, and should be allowed under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

But she said the school committee determined Chili is nothing more than a "comfort animal" -- a dog that helps a person feel better emotionally but does not have training to assist with specific tasks related to a disability.

Comfort animals aren’t allowed under school district policy. The committee meeting was private and school officials can’t comment on the student’s specific case, Superintendent Ty Sparks said in an email.

In March 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice changed its regulations to clarify that comfort animals don’t meet the definition of service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act. That means governmental entities, including school districts, aren’t necessarily required by law to allow the animals on their premises.

But Osborn said Chili, an Australian cattle dog, provides her daughter with much more than emotional support. She started using the dog, and the district allowed it, in ninth grade. But at the start of her junior year in 2011, in response to the new guidance from the Justice Department, the district changed its mind, Osborn said.

She believes the district is discriminating against her daughter because Chili meets the definition of a service dog.

Molohon was diagnosed with autism, a developmental disorder that makes it harder for her to pick up on social cues. Osborn said Chili alerts Molohon when people are trying to communicate with her, and when she needs to communicate with others.

The dog also alerts Molohon to interrupt her from anything that is causing anxiety, a complication of autism, Osborn said.

And she provides physical support, too, helping Molohon with range-of-motion problems resulting from spinal surgery, Osborn said.

She believes the district committee that determines individual education plans for students in the special education program, rejected Chili because she doesn’t perform obvious tasks like those of other service animals, such as dogs that lead the blind.

Brian East, an attorney for Disability Rights Texas, the federally designated advocacy group for people with disabilities in the state, said he couldn’t discuss Molohon’s case because he wasn’t familiar with it.

But he said even if Chili were only a comfort animal, it’s possible the dog could still be required under federal special-education law, which says schools must identify the support and services a student needs to get an appropriate education.

East said federal guidelines that came out with the 2011 changes made it clear that a dog would qualify as a service animal -- not just a comfort animal -- if it performs tasks to help with a psychiatric condition.

Osborn has been at odds with the district over what label should apply to Molohon. Her doctor says she has a form of autism; the district and a Texas Education Agency officer disagreed, saying she had an emotional disturbance. The officer found that, either way, Molohon had made substantial progress inside and outside the classroom.

Dustin Rynders, another Disability Rights Texas attorney, said that in general, a student’s diagnosis doesn’t matter. It’s what tasks the dog performs that determine whether it must be allowed, and districts should realize that when they respond to the new federal guidelines.

"Districts should not misconstrue new amendments to suggest that people with emotional disabilities are not allowed to have a service animal," he said.

Osborn said Chili hasn’t drawn complaints from other students or parents. To the contrary, she said, Chili has helped Molohon reach out socially to other students, and drawn other students to Molohon, where before she was isolated. Osborn said Molohon missed 41 days of school without Chili her junior year, compared with 20 days her sophomore year with the dog.

"The worst thing Chili has ever done is pass gas in the classroom," Osborn said. "You can’t tell me none of the football players have done that."

(Contact Mark Collette of the Caller-Times in Corpus Christi, Texas, at www.caller.com.)

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