DOJ investigation prompts Oregon school district to allow student to bring autism service dog to school

According to the Cypress Times, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has announced that Hillsboro School District (HSD) has agreed to allow Jordan “Scooter” Givens, a student suffering from autism, to bring his service dog to school. The dog recognizes when Givens is about to engage in behavior that might endanger him, and distracts him to obstruct this type of behavior. For nearly three years, says the Cypress Times, his parents’ efforts to get permission for the student to bring the dog to school had been rebuffed.

After U.S. Attorney Dwight Holton and a senior attorney from the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division met in late January with HSD’s superintendent regarding the failure to accommodate the Givens’ request, HSD announced last week that it would allow Givens to be accompanied by the service dog for a trial period. The DOJ investigation resulted from a complaint filed with the department by Joel Greenberg, an attorney with Disability Rights of Oregon (DRO).

The specific terms and parameters of the assessment period are still being worked out, but the school board’s vote shows a good faith effort to resolve this dispute voluntarily without more formal action by the department. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires schools and other public entities and businesses to allow individuals with disabilities to be accompanied by service animals. Service animals cannot be denied access except for the rare instances in which their actual behavior poses a direct threat to the safety of others or results in a fundamental alteration of the nature of a program.

Service animals are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of individuals with disabilities, including individuals with neurological disabilities caused by autism. Because of a recent change in rules on service animals adopted by DOJ, beginning March 15, 2011, service animals will be limited to dogs. Service dogs perform a wide variety of functions, including guiding persons who are blind or have low vision; alerting individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to sounds; warning persons about impending seizures or other medical conditions; performing a variety of tasks for persons with psychiatric disabilities, and picking up items, opening doors, flipping switches, providing physical support and pulling wheelchairs for individuals with mobility disabilities.

“Kids with autism deserve the same opportunity as the rest of us to grow and learn,” said U.S. Attorney Holton. “Scooter’s service dog will help him grow up to meet his full potential – which is something we should all expect and hope for our children.” Holton praised HSD’s decision to engage in a trial period with the service dog: “The last thing we need is years of litigation, costing the people of Hillsboro hundreds of thousands of dollars – Scooter is growing up, and doesn’t have time for lawyers to wrangle.”

Source: Cypress Times, 3/7/11, By Staff

[Editor's Note: In January 2011, the Washington Post reported that Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) officials had agreed to allow an elementary school student with epilepsy to attend school with his specially-trained service dog on a two-week trial basis. FCPS agreed to allow the dog in school on the condition that the student's father accompany the pair. A summary of the article is available below.]

NSBA Legal Clips archive on service dog

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