Brent Batten: Can dogged determination overcome school district access policy?

BRENT BATTEN

Four years ago Bill Hughes stood almost exactly where Elizabeth Lasanta stands today.

Based on his experience trying to get Collier County schools to accept his autistic son’s service dog, he has some advice for Lasanta, whose son also uses a service dog.

“Relocate out of the state. Get the child in a school where they value civil rights. Put Collier County behind them. You can’t forever put the child’s interests on hold. Don’t go to the legal process to protect the child’s rights because it is designed to do everything but that,” Hughes said bluntly.

Hughes’ harsh assessment of the situation will not please Lasanta and others fighting the school district decision to prohibit her 6-year-old autistic son J.C. Bowen from bringing his service dog, Pepsi, to Estates Elementary School.

But it is born out of years of fighting a fight that Hughes now believes cannot be won. “The circumstances of the Lasanta case are eerily similar to the Hughes case. The school district has all the power. The parent has none. The avenue of recourse the parent supposedly has just isn’t there,” Hughes said.

Hughes’ legal fight with the district spanned four years and included what appeared to be victories. In 2008, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights found that the school district wasn’t properly applying Section 504 of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which governs access for people with disabilities. “On the basis of the foregoing, OCR concludes that the district’s Section 504 procedures as set forth in its Section 504 Manual, both on their face and as implemented, do not fully comply with the requirements of Section 504 in a number of respects,” an OCR investigator wrote. District officials signed a resolution agreement promising to clarify and correct its procedures.

But the district has continued its practice of delaying and denying parents hearings over the right of a child to have a certified service dog in school, Hughes and others agree. “The laws are there to protect the rights of the children but the enforcement is not there. Agencies are willing to turn their heads,” Hughes said.

School district policy approved after the Lasanta request had already been denied says that requests for service dogs should be judged on whether or not the dog has a clean bill of health and whether or not it is certified to be in public places by Assistance Dogs International, a non-profit group that sets standards for service dog professionals.

Pepsi and J.C. have been certified by two groups that use ADI standards.

But in a document outlining the reason for denying J.C. the use of Pepsi in school, school officials did not mention health or certification issues. They merely stated that data showed the boy was receiving positive academic and non-academic benefits without him.

The president of one of the organizations to certify Pepsi’s ability to act appropriately in public, Carol Christopherson of Florida Service Dogs Inc., believes Collier County has a bias against allowing any service dogs in its buildings. Christopherson is hearing impaired and in 2006, when she tried to go into a school building for a hearing in the Hughes case, she was told her service dog couldn’t come with her. She had to call a state official to get him to inform the local school staff that service dogs can’t be barred from public places under ADA.

“This has nothing to do with certification. This is a totally arrogant attitude to refuse all service animals on school district grounds,” Christopherson said.

Lasanta said the dismissive attitude of school officials shows the district has learned nothing from the Hughes case. “No one even asked what the dog was for,” Lasanta said. “My initial request was met with, ‘No, he doesn’t need him.”’

For the record, the dog helps the boy maintain his balance and can calm the boy before and after a seizure.

Cathy Cannivet, another parent who has fought Collier County school on issues surrounding the treatment of exceptional students, said the district is relying on tactics of delay and deny to discourage parents. “It is a pattern the district has used. It frustrates the family and exhausts their resources.”

With the OCR findings of 2008, a determined family behind J.C. Bowen and good lawyers on their side, Cannivet is confident that finally, the district will have to abandon that strategy. “This time, I am optimistic,” she said.

Hughes isn’t so sure. He moved his family moved to Pennsylvania, where he says his son’s service dog was accepted in a public school without any problems. “I had no job here, no financial interest here. We had nothing here. But we were convinced we had (in Pennsylvania) quality services for our son and a track record of respecting the law.”

Even after the move, he vowed to continue his fight against Collier County to ensure access for disabled children. Earlier this year, he settled with the district for $125,000, all of which went to pay his attorneys fees. The district admitted no wrongdoing and Hughes agreed never to try to enroll his son in Collier County schools.

Rather than viewing the settlement as a sign of surrender, he sees it as a valuable, if foreboding, guidepost to others.

“I fulfilled that obligation,” Hughes said. “I proved there was no accountability with the schools, with OCR, with the courts. Four full years into that battle, when does it ever stop? The answer is, it just doesn’t. Is somebody going to hold the system accountable? Regrettably, I think the answer is no.”

Connect with Brent Batten at naplesnews.com/staff/brent_batten

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