16-year-old Annie suffers from cerebral palsy, epilepsy, autism, and anxiety, but her trained service dog George makes her conditions more manageable. Saucon Valley High School, however, wouldn’t allow her to bring George to school, where she spends most of her days.
The Pennsylvania school district didn’t see George as a service dog and therefore claimed Annie didn’t need him during classes. This represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the differences between service dogs and emotional support animals.
George’s Assistance Is Essential
George’s training enables him to detect rising cortisol levels on Annie’s breath, so he can calm her anxiety and alert others to a potential panic attack or seizure. If she does have a seizure, George senses it coming on and presses himself against her to stop her from falling or hurting herself.
This “deep pressure therapy” is a potentially life-saving technique. Emails between the school district’s attorney and Annie’s family indicated that George qualified as an emotional support animal but not a service dog.
Part of the reasoning behind the school’s decision was that Annie had attended school for years without a service dog. But that doesn’t factor in that it took Annie’s family years to save up the $17,000 it cost to get George. The dog also trained for 1,500 hours over the course of 2 years.
Merlin’s Kids, a non-profit that trains and pairs service dogs with children with special needs, worked to fight the school’s decision. In a Facebook post, Merlin’s Kids shared:
“Merlin’s Kids is fighting hard to prevent this amazing 16 year old girl from having her civil rights violated by a school district that claims she doesn’t need the dog. A child with disabilities should not have to fight and undergo ridicule from an administration and attorney (neither are physicians nor psychologists!) in order to bring her highly trained Merlin’s Kids service dog into school.”
A Legal Victory
Though classes resumed in person on August 23, 2021, Annie and her family decided to keep her at home rather than at school without George. On the family’s behalf, Disability Rights Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit against the school district in September.
Janice Wolfe, executive director of Merlin’s Kids, has been on Annie and George’s side as they dealt with this obstacle. Wolfe testified before a federal judge when the case went to court:
“It’s unbelievable the damage that was done by this young lady not having been able to attend school with her friends in August, September, October and now November.”
On November 19th, 2021, 3 months after the fight began, the judge granted Annie permission to bring George to school. In a text message to Wolfe, Annie wrote:
“Today marks the beginning of giving those with invisible and visible disabilities a voice.”
Regardless of this positive outcome, Wolfe emphasized that the determination of whether a dog is actually a service animal should not be up to school officials without expertise.