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Service animal policy updates recommended by Manchester panel

By PAUL FEELY
New Hampshire Union Leader

January 09. 2018 11:34PM




MANCHESTER — A school board subcommittee has unanimously recommended updates to the district’s policy regarding the use of service animals in city schools, following concerns over how these animals are defined under the current policy.

School board members asked the New Hampshire School Boards Association to review the district’s current policy on service animals, following a recent incident at Southside Middle School.

“Statewide and countrywide, there is a big crackdown by states on people who have service animals, which are covered by federal law, and some people are trying to get their pets in to events calling them emotional support animals,” said committee member Ross Terrio of Ward 7. “We had an incident where someone brought an emotional support animal to the school. I have a constituent that is a dog trainer that trains service dogs. She was at a school function and someone had brought in an emotional support dog into the gymnasium. She is well versed in the law and she knows that the ADA covers service dogs, but not emotional support dogs. The principal wasn’t aware of this and thought it was perfectly fine for someone to have an emotional support dog.”

Under New Hampshire’s service animal law and the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), people with disabilities may bring service animals to all “public accommodations,” including stores, businesses, motels, restaurants, theaters, and schools.

The N.H. Governor’s Commission on Disability notes that “emotional support dogs” (ESAs) and therapy dogs do not qualify as service animals under the ADA. According to the ADA, a service dog is a dog that has been individually trained to provide assistance to a person living with a disability. The animal’s tasks must be directly related to the individual’s disability.

There is no universal certification or registration for service dogs. And the ADA allows someone to train his own service dog.

“What we need here is some training for our administrators, to understand the difference between a therapy dog and a service dog, an emotional support animal and any other animal” said committee member John Avard of Ward 10. “At this point it takes about $65 and an application to get the certification and vest to make your dog a service dog. It doesn’t require lots of training. The administrator doesn’t understand the difference between the true service dog and the emotional support dog. People are using this as a means of bringing their dogs everywhere they go.”

“Many states including New Hampshire are cracking down on this,” said Terrio. “It is an abuse where people lead other people to believe it is a service dog when it is really not a service dog. I just wanted to clarify our policy to prevent this in the future. The principal was unsure of what our policy is.”

New Hampshire has a law, RSA 167-D:8, which makes it unlawful “for a person to fit an animal with a collar, leash, vest, sign or harness of the type that represents that the animal is a service animal ... if in fact said animal is not a service animal.” It’s also illegal for someone “to impersonate, by word or action, a person with a disability for the purpose of receiving service dog accommodations or service animal accessories such as a collar, leash, vest, sign, harness or service animal tag. ...”

Under the ADA, when it’s not obvious what service a dog provides, two questions can be asked of the handler:

1) Is the dog required because of a disability? (You can’t ask what the disability is.)

2) And what work or task is the dog trained to perform?

According to the proposed update to the district’s policy, “Use of a service animal by a person with a disability will be allowed in or upon district property when the animal is required to perform work or tasks directly related to the individual’s disability. Qualified individuals with disabilities and service animal trainers are eligible to use service animals in the school.”

The policy also states, “‘Service Animal’ for the purposes of this policy shall mean and include any dog individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Service animal shall be construed to include a “hearing ear dog,” “guide dog,” or “service dog,” as those terms are currently defined in NH RSA 167-D:1. “Emotional support”, “therapy” or “comfort dogs” are generally not service animals for the purposes of this policy.”

The new policy also covers “miniature horses,” because “miniature horses which have been individually trained to perform specific work or tasks may be permitted in the schools in certain circumstances as a reasonable accommodation for a qualified individual with a disability. Any such requests should be directed to the Superintendent or his/her designee. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not service animals for purposes of this definition.”

The updated policy also states the individual — or in the case of a student, the student’s parent or guardian(s) — is liable for any damage to district property or other personal property, and for any injuries to individuals caused by the service animal. When a service animal is in a school or on district property (and it is not obvious that the animal qualifies as a service animal, such as a guide dog for a blind person, a building administrator or other authorized district personnel is permitted to ask if the service animal is required because of a disability, and what work or tasks the animal has been trained to perform.

“I think we have to educate people at the gates to our ballgames and such to ask these questions,” said committee member Art Beaudry of Ward 9.

“I expect the administration to ask if this is a service dog, because if you don’t allow someone to bring in a service dog you can create a problem,” said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bolgen Vargas.

The school board’s Coordination Committee voted unanimously to refer the updated policy to the full board for approval at it’s next meeting.

pfeely@unionleader.com


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