The use of service animals on campus has been a topic of growing interest and, in July of 2015, the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division issued new guidance about service animals and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the form of an FAQ document.  Here are the highlights:

The general rule under the ADA is that entities must permit service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas where members of the public are allowed to go. According to the DOJ, the ADA requires State and local government agencies, such as school districts, to make “reasonable accommodations” in their policies, practices, or processes when necessary to accommodate people with disabilities. The DOJ, therefore, frowns upon any entities with “no pets” policies.

How does the DOJ define a “service animal”? According to this new guidance, beginning in March of 2011, only dogs are recognized as service animals under the ADA. According to the FAQ, a service animal is a “dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability.” Examples include:

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  • A dog trained to help a person with diabetes to alert when the person’s blood sugar is too high or too low.
  • A dog that is trained to help a person with depression take medication.
  • A dog that is trained to detect the onset of a seizure and help the person remain safe during the seizure.

According to the DOJ, while “psychiatric service animals” can be a required ADA accommodation, animals that merely provide “emotional support, therapy, comfort, or companionship” are not. For example, if the animal has been specifically trained to help avoid an anxiety attack or lessen its impact, that would qualify.

Another general rule is that the service animal must be under the control of the handler at all times. The handler may be the person with the disability or a third party assisting the individual with a disability. The dog must be harnessed, tethered, or leashed unless it interferes with the service animal’s work. In that case, the handler must be able to control the animal through voice commands, signals, or other effective means to maintain control.

While the DOJ FAQ document covers many topics and is recommended reading for all, here are some general rules most pertinent to school districts:

  • When determining whether the accommodation of a service animal is needed, you can ask the person only two questions: (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform? Public entities are not allowed to ask for any documentation for the dog, require that the dog demonstrate a task, or inquire about the nature of the person’s disability.
  • An entity may not require any documentation of certification as a condition for entry.
  • The ADA does not restrict the type of dog breeds. Exclusion is not permitted based upon stereotypes of a particular dog breed.
  • Exclusion may be allowed if the service animal (1) behaves in such a way that poses a direct threat to others; (2) has a history of such behavior; or (3) is not under the control of the handler.
  • If a service animal is out of control or being disruptive, staff may request that the animal be removed from the premises.

So, what if a person feels they have been denied an accommodation or excluded from public services because of their service animal? The DOJ recommends those who believe that they have been illegally denied access or services because they use a service animal to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice. They may also file a private lawsuit in federal court charging the entity with discrimination under the ADA.

According to the DOJ, the FAQ should be read in conjunction with the publication ADA Revised Requirements: Service Animals.  To drill down even deeper into the use of service animals on campus and Texas rules related to this, we recommend the February 2015 Legal Digest lead article by Sarah Orman, “What You Should Know About The Use Of Service Animals On Campus.”

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