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Many disabled people say that life without a service animal is unthinkable. Now, public institutions are required to admit service animals without question, but some public schools claim they cannot handle the disruption of a dog in a busy classroom. As NPR's Larry Abramson reports, disabled students are hoping new federal guidelines will help them avoid legal battles over their animals.
LARRY ABRAMSON: Everyone at Sharando High School knows Nathan Selove. He's the kid with the dog.
Mr. NATHAN SELOVE: Actually she's the only dog in the Frederick County public school system so far.
ABRAMSON: Sylvia is a sweet tempered yellow lab who accompanies Nathan to school everyday. She wears a green vest that proclaims: Don't pet me, I'm working. Nathan used to be a target of bullying, but is less so now, he says. He strolls down the hallways, leash in hand, looking relaxed, sunglasses propped above his forehead.
You would hardly know that Nathan has Asperger's Syndrome, that he sometimes has terrifying meltdowns in class. That's why Sylvia is here.
Mr. SELOVE: And when I feel the need to pet her, I just sort of lean down and pet her and sometimes, like when I get really stressed out, which doesn't actually happen that often anymore, she'll get on my lap."
ABRAMSON: In history class, Nathan sits down and Sylvia grabs a spot under his desk and chills. In a room full of high school sophomores, Sylvia is the calmest mammal in the room.
History teacher Doreen Pauley says Sylvia is just part of the class now.
Ms. DOREEN PAULEY (Teacher): If he needs her, she's there. If he doesn't, she's just quiet. She's a good dog.
ABRAMSON: The blind don't usually get a guide dog until they're adults. So the service animals that schools see are focused on other disabilities, a growing number of autistic children are paired with service animals. The Frederick County school system was initially hesitant when Nathan's parents decided that he would benefit from having a service dog in middle school. But now, Sylvia even rides the bus to school with Nathan.
Not every parent has gotten the same reception. Attorney Kathleen Mehfoud represents a number of Virginia school districts. She says, many schools worry they may violate the rights of other students by admitting a service dog.
Ms. KATHLEEN MEHFOUD (Attorney): For example, there are a number of students and staff who may be allergic to dogs.
ABRAMSON: Disability rights groups say allergies and other issues can easily be dealt with. They pushed the U.S. Justice Department to issue new rules this spring, clarifying that the Americans with Disabilities Act does apply to schools. But some districts still question why dogs are necessary, especially for students who already get intensive special-ed services.
In Orange County, California, Milka Ciriacks has been fighting to have Eddie the service dog accompany her six-year-old son Caleb to school. Caleb is severely autistic and he used to run away all the time.
Ms. MILKA CIRIACKS: It didn't really like make sense to me until he had episode where Caleb took off. And then it kind of like - it, that I was like the big, red flag and Im like, oh my gosh. We need something else
ABRAMSON: For the past year, the Cypress School District has refused to allow Eddie into the school. Milka Ciriacks has turned to federal court. The Cypress district would not talk on tape, but in court filings officials argue that Caleb is making good progress without a dog. The district worries that being tied to an animal will reduce his independence, but Milka Ciriacks says without Eddy, her son is having outbursts in school.
Ms. CIRIACKS: His behaviors are really more calm at home or when we're out with Eddie, as opposed to I dont know whats going on at school thats really increasing these aggressive behaviors.
ABRAMSON: The new federal regulations are meant to stop these cases from going to court. The rules tell schools they must admit legitimate service dogs. But they also say schools do not have to allow the wide variety of therapy animals who are not trained, and primarily provide companionship and comfort.
Schools' attorney Kathleen Mehfoud says, it's about time.
Ms. MEHFOUD: We have dealt with requests for service snakes and service monkeys in the past.
ABRAMSON: The new rules make it clear that trained dogs are pretty much the only animals who qualify.
Home at last after working a long day, Sylvia sheds her service vest and becomes a house pet for a little while.
Unidentified Woman: Sylvia, let's get all this stuff so we dont...
ABRAMSON: Sylvia gets to run around on the Selove family's 11-acre property. The family home is a bit of service dog heaven. Father, Ramon Selove also has Asperger syndrome, and he takes his dog, Cori, to his job as a college professor. But Ramon Selove has this caution.
Professor RAMON SELOVE (Anatomy and Physiology, Lord Fairfax Community College): Service dogs are a lot of work.
ABRAMSON: Training can cost tens of thousands of dollars. It involves weeks of classroom work that can be challenging for kids like Nathan.
Prof. SELOVE: But he was so motivated by his desire to have this dog that he was willing to do things that he wouldnt have been willing to do otherwise.
ABRAMSON: Sylvia may well be Nathan's best friend. And with these new rules many other disabled schoolchildren now also have the U.S. Justice Department as their buddy.
Larry Abramson, NPR News.
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