Education News

When Service Dogs Go To School

A key issue in a pending U.S. Supreme Court case is what law comes into play: Is it the federal special education law, known as IDEA? Or the Americans with Disabilities Act?

Diabetic Alert Dogs, said that people shouldn't pet or distract a service dog when they're working.
Service dogs are considered working when they have a red vest on. Trainer Kim Johnson, founder of Lone Star Diabetic Alert Dogs, said that people shouldn’t pet or distract a service dog when they’re working.

Sixteen-year-old Serena Maher has a special bond with her dog.

His name is Max, he’s a year and half old and he’s a golden pocket lab. What’s more, Max can alert Serena when her Type One diabetes gets out of control. He smells her blood sugar and gives her a paw if it’s too high or too low.

“I know, you’re a good boy, yes, yes, you’re a good boy, yeah!” Serena told him on a recent afternoon at a park in Fort Bend County.

When Max wears his bright red vest, it tells him and everyone else that he’s working.

“When he’s in his vest, he does a fantastic job of taking care of me. He saves my life pretty much every day,” Serena said.

When she was eight years old, Serena was diagnosed with Type One diabetes. She checks her blood sugar eight to ten times a day and uses an insulin pump. But it’s still hard to keep it under control. Last semester she said that she missed three quarters of her classes at Ridge Point High in the Fort Bend Independent School District because she was sick or in the nurse’s office.

But when Serena tried to take Max to school with her after the winter break, Fort Bend ISD at first said no.

Max’s trainer, Kim Johnson, started complaining, saying that Serena’s civil rights were being violated.

She said she reached out to “the teachers association, the Office for Civil Rights, the Fort Bend Independent School District, we’re headed to the Fort Bend Police Department right now.”

High school junior Serena Maher wanted to bring her service dog Max to school after the winter break. The Fort Bend Independent School District delayed his arrival to notify other students.
High school junior Serena Maher wanted to bring her service dog Max to school after the winter break. The Fort Bend Independent School District delayed his arrival to notify other students.

But Fort Bend County isn’t the only place service dogs have ruffled some fur.

In Beaumont last fall, as the local ABC station reported, a 10-year-old girl with epilepsy wanted to bring her service dog to lunch. The school said that she needed a prescription.

It has happened in other states, including Michigan where Ehlena Fry wanted to bring her fluffy golden doodle, Wonder, to school. She has cerebral palsy and Wonder helped her move around. But the Michigan school district balked.

The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court last fall. Justices heard oral arguments in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools in October.

A key issue in the pending case is what law comes into play: Is it the federal special education law, known as IDEA? Or the Americans with Disabilities Act?

Justices are expected to issue their ruling by June. But, as Chief Justice John Roberts noted, those special ed hearings can take a long time to resolve an issue.

“A 105 days is a big part of the school year,” Roberts said. “So I think saying that all they have to do is go through a 105-day process is not particularly responsive.”

Others believe that families need to exhaust special ed hearings first before resorting to other legal action. The National School Boards Association supported that in the case before the Supreme Court.

“The best way for educational decisions to be made is for the schools and families to work together,” said Naomi Gittins, deputy general counsel with the NSBA.

Gittins added that schools always have to think about the impact in the classroom and make sure other children aren’t allergic or scared of dogs.

In Fort Bend County, school officials said they needed time to notify students before Serena Maher could bring her service dog Max to class. But now that that’s done, he’s welcome.

“Fort Bend ISD is committed to supporting all of its students, and district and campus staff members have been in communication with the parents and the trainer to discuss the use of a service animal at Ridge Point High School,” spokeswoman Amanda Bubela said in a statement.

Serena said that she doesn’t want Max to ever leave her side.

“He’s my buddy. He’s always with me and he keeps me safe,” she said.

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Laura Isensee

Education Reporter

Laura Isensee covers education for Houston Public Media, including K-12 and higher education. Previously, she was a staff reporter at The Miami Herald and contributed to South Florida’s NPR affiliate. Her work has also appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Reuters and Clarín in Argentina. Laura has won awards for...

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