Anoka-Hennepin School District staff drafted formal guidelines for service and therapy animals in school buildings and presented those to the School Board for the first time last month.
“The district has actually accommodated service and therapy animals for many, many years,” said Paul Cady, district general counsel.
The Americans with Disabilities Act allows for service animals to go “where the public is normally allowed to go,” including school buildings, but there are no legal protections for therapy animals.
The new district guidelines define a service animal as a dog or miniature horse that is “individually trained to accompany its owner or handler for the purpose of carrying items, retrieving objects, pulling a wheelchair, alerting the owner or handler to medical conditions or other such activities of service or support necessary to mitigate a disability.” Service animals are trained animals, which include hearing animals, guide animals, assistance animals, seizure alert animals, mobility animals, psychiatric animals and autism animals.
A therapy animal is defined in the guidelines as an animal that is “individually trained for emotional support, well-being, comfort or companionship.”
According to Director of Student Services Cory McIntyre, the district currently has one service animal and six therapy animals that have been granted long-term access to buildings.
The district continues to see an increase in the amount of requests for service and therapy animals, McIntyre said.
All animals currently in the schools long term are dogs.
Rylee, a golden retriever trained by Can Do Canines, accompanies sixth-grader Sophia Reither to Roosevelt Middle School in Blaine as a service animal.
Sophia has autism, and Rylee has assisted with a selective mutism diagnosis, according to Sophia’s mother, Michele Reither.
With Rylee by her side, Sophia has had less anxiety and has seen improved academic performance and social interactions in the classroom. When there are alarms and lockdowns at the school, Rylee keeps Sophia from running away from the noise, Reither said. Since Rylee became part of the family in 2016, Sophia has undergone “an amazing transformation.”
Reither said the process to allow Rylee to accompany Sophia to class was long and methodical, but reasonable.
“They were really accommodating,” she said of the school district.
The district’s new guidelines formalize standards to evaluate requests for service and therapy animals at the building level.
Service animals must be trained, must not interfere with the educational process of students and must not pose a health or safety threat to anyone (the Office for Civil Rights has ruled allergies are not a reason to exclude a service animal; schools must find ways to accommodate both students with allergies and with service animals).
Therapy animals are limited to working with people with disabilities. They, too, must not interfere with educational processes or pose a health or safety threat.
Service animals and therapy animals will be denied access to buildings if they are unclean; urinate or defecate in inappropriate locations; solicit attention; bark, growl or whine unnecessarily; show aggression; or take food from students or staff.
The district can request but not require health and training certificates.
Service animals cannot be denied access to transportation on school buses, but therapy animals will not be allowed to ride, according to guidelines.
Once a request has been made, building administrators have a series of steps they must take, including identifying possible allergy concerns, arranging for students and staff to learn proper behavior around service and therapy animals, notifying other parents and guardians before the animal begins attending school and more.
“We’re striving for consistency with flexibility,” McIntyre said of the guidelines.