Illinois appellate court concludes disabled students enjoys statutory right to have service dog accompany him in school
The Appellate Court of Illinois, Fourth District, has ruled that a student with autism has the right under Illinois law to have his service dog attend school with him. It concluded that the dog met the statutory definition of “service animal” and, therefore, the statute on its face permits the dog to attend school with the student. Villa Grove Community Unit School District No. 302 (VGCUSD) denied the parents of Kaleb Drew’s request that a dog trained by the Autism Service Dogs of America be allowed to attend with Kaleb on the ground the dog did not met the statutory definition of “service animal.” The parents filed suit against VGCUSD in the Circuit Court of Douglas County (trial court), claiming that § 14-6.02 of the School Code (105 ILCS 5/14-6.02) permits Kaleb to bring the dog with him to school. VGCUSD filed a motion to dismiss the suit on the grounds that: (1) the parents had failed to exhaust their administrative remedies before bringing the suit; and (2) the dog did not met § 14-6.02′s definition of a “service animal.” The trial court rejected both grounds, found in favor of the parents and ordered VGCUSD to permit the dog to accompany Kaleb to all school functions, both in and out of the classroom.
The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s decision. It acknowledged that as a general rule in Illinois parties may not seek judicial relief until they have exhausted their administrative remedies. However, there is an exception to the exhaustion ruled if ”if the administrative agency’s expertise is not involved.” Because the administrative process relevant to disabled students was established in accordance with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, it stated that the sole question determinative of whether exhaustion was excused was whether [the dog] constitutes a service animal under the Illinois School Code, a matter irrelevant to any educational benefit he provides K.D. The appellate court determined that resolving § 14-6.02′s definition of “service animal” was not a matter within school administrators’ expertise. It found, instead, that the question was one of statutory construction that fell well within the trial court’s jurisdiction. It rejected VGCUSD’s reliance on Cave v. East Meadow Union Free School District, 514 F.3d 240, 245 (2d Cir. 2008), stressing that the reasoning in that case relied on federal statutes, ”none of which included a service-animal definition similar to that contained in the Illinois School Code at issue in this case.”
The appellate court rejected the arguments put forth by the school district that Kaleb’s dog was not a “service animal” on two grounds: ”(1) the record before us on appeal establishes Chewey provides some benefit to K.D.; and (2) the District’s remaining arguments reach beyond the plain, unambiguous meaning of the statute.” The dog constituted a “service animal,” the court explained, within the plain meaning of the statutory language that states: “Service animals such as guide dogs, signal dogs[,] or any other animal individually trained to perform tasks for the benefit of a student with a disability shall be permitted to accompany that student at all school functions ….” It concluded that the “arguments exceed the plain meaning of the statute” because “[r]egardless of whether Chewey’s behavior varies from his training, section 14-6.02 does not specify service animals must behave perfectly at all times” and ” … the statute does not require evaluating the disabled child’s educational and behavioral performances before labeling the animal assisting the child a “service animal.” Lastly, the appellate court found unpersuasive VGCUSD’s assertion that Kaleb–not an adult handler–must control the dog for the it to’accompany’ Kaleb because the plain meaning of “accompany” does not encompass “control.”
[Editor's Note: In January 2010, the Appellate Court of Illinois, Fifth District, upheld a lower court’s decision to grant a preliminary injunction compelling a school district to allow a student with autism to bring his service dog to school. It concluded as, the Fourth District did, that the exhaustion of administrative remedies requirement was excused. In regard to the application of the service animal statute, it found that the evidence presented in the trial court “was sufficient to raise a fair question” that the dog fell under the statute’s definition. It also rejected the school district's contention that the service animal statute requires an educational benefit. A summary of the opinion, with links to background on the K.D. v. VGCUSD decision and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit's (NY, VT, CT) decision in Cave, is available below.]