Catawba County Schools won't let a 4-year-old child bring his service dog to school. His parents say the school system is violating the Disabilities Act, and they've filed a lawsuit.
Leonel and Jennifer Silva, of Vale, filed the lawsuit Monday on behalf of their adopted son, Ayden, who started a pre-kindergarten program at Mountain View Elementary School in August. When Ayden was chosen for the pre-K program, Catawba County Schools knew he was to be accompanied by a service dog.
According to the lawsuit, the Silvas were told Feb. 24, 2010, that Ayden's service dog accommodation will be dealt with once the child was assigned an elementary school. Once Ayden was assigned to Mountain View Elementary School on Aug. 19, the Silvas were informed Ayden's dog, Chatham, cannot be inside the classroom once school started.
"It's a parent's choice how they choose to educate their child," said staff attorney Holly Stiles, of Disabilities Rights of North Carolina. "(The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Disabilities Act of 1990) say that public places have to accommodate the needs of people with disabilities. Based on that, it's our position that Ayden is able to attend school (with his service animal)."
Ayden suffers from static encephalopathy because of fetal alcohol exposure, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, mild developmental delay, sensory integration difficulties, sleep apnea, insomnia and obsessive-compulsive traits.
The lawsuit states the Silvas decided to send Ayden to school Aug. 25 because a follow-up meeting was set for Sept. 10 to discuss allowing Chatham in school with the child.
"It's strictly about access," Stiles said. "We are dealing with a school that if you show up at the front door with a service animal, then they won't educate you. That's violating Ayden's rights as a child with disabilities."
Stiles relates Ayden's situation to a child who uses a wheelchair.
"If you are a child that uses a wheelchair and you start school and the school says you can come to school and get an education as long as you leave your wheelchair at home," Stiles said. "Service animals are the same. They are a tool when confronted with someone with disabilities. It's an impossible decision and an illegal decision to ask Ayden to make."
However, Ayden has not been allowed to have Chatham in class, other than when he is dropped off at school and picked up. Because of a "re-emergence of certain behaviors," Jennifer picks Ayden up from school between noon and 12:30 p.m. daily to be with Chatham. Ayden misses nap time and an afternoon snack after being picked up from school.
"Catawba County Board of Education is committed to the needs, rights and protection of all persons with disabilities and denies allegations that the school system has discriminated against this student," CCS attorney Crystal Davis said in a prepared statement. "The school system acknowledges having worked diligently with the family and having had multiple meetings with the family to discuss and plan services for the student."
Ayden and Chatham were put together in September 2009, after the dog received 11 months of training. The Silvas paid $7,000 for Chatham's training, which included money from their personal income, adoption assistance funds and community member contributions.
Chatham, who is a hypoallergenic Goldendoodle dog, helps control Ayden's aggressive and self-injurous behaviors, hyperactivity, lack of impulse control and other dangerous behaviors, according to the lawsuit.
Stiles said an effective service animal has a bond with its owner.
"When a service animal is properly bonded, it knows when there is an undesirable behavior," Stiles said.
Stiles said children in Ayden's class have seen Chatham when Ayden arrived and left school. The service dog proposes no harm and is trained to only serve its owner's needs.
"With a well-trained service animal, they are trained to be almost invisible," Stiles said. "A working service animal is not a distraction. There may be some initial education done with the kids (in a classroom) to explain (the service dog's) job."