• Dogs and Horses and . . . Peacocks? Service, Therapy, and Comfort Animals in the Classroom – What Does the Law Require?
  • October 1, 2018
  • It has become common place to hear and read about requests for therapy dogs and horses in the classroom, emotional support peacocks and other animals on airplanes, and comfort critters in restaurants. This can lead to confusion concerning what type of accommodations a school district must make for students with a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), or what types of animals must be allowed on campus to support a student pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”). The information below is intended as a general guideline to help answer some of the most common questions concerning animals on campus and help district personnel prevent setting a precedent by approving overly broad requests while also avoiding liability for denying requests that may be appropriate under the state and federal law. Districts should however contact their general or special education counsel with questions concerning specific scenarios or making exceptions for unique individual circumstances.

    Overview of Federal and State Law

    Both Texas law and federal disability statutes require that individuals with disabilities be allowed to bring their service animals with them to public environments, including school campuses and educational facilities. Federal law generally defines a service animal as a dog, and perhaps a miniature horse under severely limited circumstances, that is specifically trained to perform tasks directly related to the disability of the individual being served by the animal. Texas law references only dogs and requires that the canine be specially trained to assist someone with a disability. Disabilities include vision and hearing impairments, physical, mental, and cognitive impediments, and conditions affecting mobility. Under the IDEA, all accommodations must be individually tailored to each student, and threshold questions of whether a service animal should be utilized as an accommodation should generally be discussed with legal counsel.

    What About Therapy and Comfort Animals?

    Neither the federal statutes nor Texas law require that “therapy animals,” “comfort animals” or “emotional support animals” be allowed in schools or any other place of public accommodation. Often these types of animals are said to provide a calming effect or promote a sense of safety and security in the individual utilizing these animals. While this may be true, they generally have not been specifically trained to assist the individual student with performing tasks to assist the student or compensate for the student’s disability. Accordingly they do not meet the definition of a “service animal,” and therefore the student in question is not entitled to have these animals with them in the educational setting.

    Are We Required to Allow Miniature Horses on Campus?

    In general, the answer to this question is maybe. Board policy FBA (LEGAL) generally defines service animals for school districts as canines. Texas law does not specifically reference miniature horses as service animals in educational settings, and the ADA’s definition of service animals is largely limited to dogs, though it is possible that under the right set of circumstances miniature horses may qualify. Policy FBA (LEGAL) should also address the use of miniature horses as service animals. When a request is made for the use of a miniature horse on campus, there is a list of “Assessment Factors” that the school should consider to determine whether a reasonable modification to district policy should be made to allow the horse into a specific district facility. These factors are:

    1. The type, size and weight of the animal and whether the facility can handle an animal of such size;

    2. Whether there will be a handler present with sufficient control of the animal;

    3. Whether the animal is housebroken; and

    4. Whether the animal’s presence in the facility presents a legitimate safety concern.

    Of course, the miniature horse must, as a prerequisite to the above considerations, be specifically trained to assist with an individual’s specific disability. As one may assume, a miniature horse may be appropriate or allowed in one school district facility, but perhaps not in others. With any requests for the use of miniature horses as services animals, district legal counsel should be involved.

    What Type of Questions Can I Ask?

    A school district is essentially limited to asking two questions to determine the qualification of a service animal: (1) if the animal is required because of a disability; and (2) what work or task the animal has been trained to perform. A district may not require documentation on how the animal was trained or whether it is certified or licensed as a service animal.

    What Can I Require of the Animal or Handler?

    A school district can require that the animal is housebroken. A school district may also require that the service animal is under the control of its handler at all times, and that the animal does not represent a danger to the disabled student or others. A service animal that is not under control, presents a danger to students or staff, or that is not housebroken can be required to be removed from the school facility.

    Other Questions and Considerations

    Use of a service animal on campus will generally result in practical questions concerning the interaction between the service animal and its environment. For example, there may be questions concerning whether the school district can require that the service animal be spayed or neutered. There are no doubt other questions of hygiene related to service animals that have not been litigated or addressed in statute, so contact your legal counsel if other issues arise.

    There are also legitimate questions of how to accommodate both the student that requires the service animal, and the student (or teacher) in the classroom that is allergic to or especially fearful of such animals. This can potentially pit the disability of one student against the disability of another student or employee. Questions such as this are delicate, and should include the involvement of legal counsel.