Judge: Autistic student's service dog unnecessary at school

J.C. Bowen, 6, who has autism, plays fetch with his service dog Pepsi, a golden retriever, left, outside of his home in Golden Gate Estates on Nov. 12, 2010. Bowen's mother, Elizabeth, right, is battling Collier County Schools to allow Pepsi to join J.C. in the classroom. Bowen says the dog fits in the school board's policy to allow for service animals if the family can demonstrate they are needed, because Pepsi is trained to help if J.C. has a seizure. Greg Kahn/Staff

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J.C. Bowen, 6, who has autism, plays fetch with his service dog Pepsi, a golden retriever, left, outside of his home in Golden Gate Estates on Nov. 12, 2010. Bowen's mother, Elizabeth, right, is battling Collier County Schools to allow Pepsi to join J.C. in the classroom. Bowen says the dog fits in the school board's policy to allow for service animals if the family can demonstrate they are needed, because Pepsi is trained to help if J.C. has a seizure. Greg Kahn/Staff

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— An administrative law judge has ruled that an autistic Estates Elementary School student will have to leave his service dog at home.

Judge Bruce McKibben ruled March 9 that the family of kindergartner J.C. Bowen failed to prove that the presence of his service dog, a yellow retriever named Pepsi, was necessary or warranted.

“From the uncontroverted testimony of the School, it is providing J.C. every accommodation he needs to address each and every issue he faces during the school day,” he wrote in the judgment. “In fact, J.C. is doing excellent work and has not been a behavioral problem. There is, in short, no need for a service dog to provide J.C. with a ‘meaningful access to the program or services sought.’ He is doing well without the dog, and its presence could be a disruption to other students.”

J.C.’s mother, Elizabeth Lasanta, said Wednesday that she plans to appeal.

“My reaction, sadly, is not surprised in the least. This was expected,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Lasanta had argued that the dog was needed to keep J.C. from running and to calm him when he becomes agitated.

“When he starts to have a meltdown, I asked him where his harness is,” she told the Naples Daily News last year. “He puts his hand on the harness and he calms down.”

School District Attorney Jon Fishbane said the district was pleased with the decision.

“The child was given the appropriate plan and access to services. There was no reason to have the dog because all of his needs were attended to,” he said.

Fishbane praised the school’s teachers, psychologists and behavior specialists who spoke about J.C.’s progress at school during the administrative hearing.

The struggle for J.C.’s parents to get the service dog into the classroom began in prekindergarten, Lasanta said, when she tried to get the dog added to J.C.’s individualized education plan, which is a plan for a child’s education that is required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The Collier County School District defines a service animal as “an animal 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.”

The district’s policy, available on its website, requires prior written approval before the animal can be brought onto school grounds.

But Lasanta said the district denied the request.

J.C. was diagnosted at age 2 with autism, a disorder that affects 1 in 110 children in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A year later, he began having seizures. After the diagnosis of the seizures, for which J.C. takes medication, the family decided to look into getting a service dog for their son.

Lasanta said the family spent three weeks in August 2009 working with Pepsi to make sure he would be a good match for J.C. and to ensure the child was familiar with commands.

J.C. also has spacial issues and Pepsi helps him stay on his feet, Lasanta said.

Pepsi helps her son stay calm, and knows what to do when J.C. has a seizure, Lasanta said; Pepsi can catch J.C. if the child starts to fall.

“When he comes out of a seizure, he is scared, especially if things are not like he remembered them,” she said. “He tends to jump up and run. Pepsi can stay on him until he fully comes out of it.”

According to McKibben’s judgement, J.C. “did not ever attempt to elope from the kindergarten classroom. His teacher did not see any problems with his gait or balance.” Further, McKibben wrote that J.C. initially would throw tantrums, but that those behaviors subsided over time.

“All in all, J.C. is a very good student and is doing well in the regular kindergarten class at the School despite his disability,” McKibben wrote.

Connect with K-12 education policy reporter Katherine Albers at www.naplesnews.com/staff/katherine-albers/.

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