School and family argue over service dog

School And Family Argue Over Service Dog
School And Family Argue Over Service Dog

An Arkansas family whose son requires a service dog is taking action against his school. The family says that the school is forcing it to pay $500 a month for a private handler -- and the story gets a little more complicated than that.

KATV introduces us to 7-year-old Zachary Sorrells and his service dog, Majesty. Zachary has cerebral palsy and epilepsy, and Majesty helps warn adults that a seizure is coming. At first, Zachary's mother said that the school would not let Majesty attend, then decided she could but needed a handler.

Now, the Sorrells admit adult supervision of the dog is necessary given Zachary's age, but they don't think they should have to pay for a private handler. So let's take a look at the laws that deal with cases like these. There are two:

First, there's Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which says public entities must "provide auxiliary aids at no additional cost to individuals with disabilities." Aids, for example, include interpreters or Brailled materials.

Then there's Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which says staff at state and local government services "are not required to provide care or food for a service animal."

So here's where the differing interpretations come from: that word "care." In an interview with Fox News, Michelle Sorrells says that the tasks of the handler are minimal.

​​"I'm a teacher every day. And holding Majesty's leash in the hallway with Zachary is no different than holding his hand."

Basically, she's saying a private, trained handler might not be completely necessary -- and that any adult already working at the school could adequately do the job.

But Superintendent Tony Thurman told Fox News a handler is necessary and that the school doesn't have to provide that person.

He cited that ADA provision we mentioned earlier -- about staff not having to provide care or food for a service animal.

​We took a look at Section 7:25 of the district's own guidelines, which in part reiterate, "The District and its staff are not responsible for the care or supervision of a service animal brought onto district property."

Now here's another point of difference between the Sorrells and the school -- in fact, the real gist of the argument: The family says Majesty's presence with Zachary at school is necessary and can save his life.

Look deeper into the the online article, and it appears that the district superintendent is suggesting Zachary doesn't​ need Majesty -- at least not at school: "The most important aspect of this entire issue is the fact that the child can be provided with an education with or without the service animal."

If the Sorrells family does pay a private handler $500 a month, that would be $4,500 for a nine-month school year. Assuming Zachary needed a service dog's aide through age 18, the family is destined to pay almost $50,000.

According to Service Dog Central, only 15 percent of dogs can naturally predict a seizure, and how they do it is still largely a mystery.

The two leading theories are: they have the ability to detect changes in the person's biochemistry or they can see tiny motor changes that are unnoticeable to humans.

The Sorrells have filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.

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