work, the service animal must be otherwise under the handler’s control (e.g.,
voice control, signals, or other effective
Districts are prohibited from charging
a person with a service animal a fee to
access district facilities. However, a district
may charge the individual for damages
caused by the service animal. 19 A district
would be in a stronger legal position to
do so if it has a general policy or practice
of charging for damages to facilities, since
it would be discriminatory to charge only
people with service animals for damages.
Q: What if a student is not capable
of handling a service animal? Is the dis-
trict obligated to provide a staff member
to assist the student with the animal?
A: In most situations, no. If a child
is unable to handle a service animal,
then typically the parents must provide a
handler. If a handler is not provided, then
the service animal can be prohibited from
coming to school. 20 An exception may
apply if the district determines that the
animal is necessary for a student with a
disability to receive a FAPE (free appropriate public education).
In Florida, a school district was
required to assign a staff member to assist
a student with a service dog when the dog
needed to urinate. Although the student
had severe disabilities, the court deter-
mined that he could serve as a handler
because the dog could be tethered to his
wheelchair. Staff assistance was, there-
fore, required as a reasonable accommo-
dation under Section 504 rather than as
“care and supervision,” which the ADA
specifically states that districts are not
required to provide. 21
In a similar case, however, a court declined to order a New Hampshire school
district to provide assistance, reasoning
that the student, who was nonverbal
and required assistance to walk, could
not serve as the dog’s handler. 22 School
officials should consult with the district’s
special education attorney when faced
with this situation.
Q: What about “comfort animals”? 23
A: The ADA specifically states that a
service animal does not include an animal
that is intended to increase an individual’s
comfort or sense of well-being: “The
crime deterrent effects of an animal’s
presence and the provision of emotional
support, well-being, comfort, or companionship do not constitute work or tasks.” 24
Distinguishing between service animals
and comfort animals is not always easy,
Just as the nature of a person’s dis-
ability is not always visible to outsiders,
the task(s) that an animal is trained to
perform may not be obvious. Dogs may
be trained to calm an individual during
an anxiety attack, prevent compulsive or
destructive behaviors, remind someone
with an intellectual disability when to
take medication, assist with balance or
stability, and alert to the onset of a seizure
or the presence of allergens.25 When in
doubt, ask the two permitted questions.
If the animal merely provides a general
sense of comfort unrelated to a disability,
then the animal does not meet the definition of a service animal under the ADA.
In the context of district employees
and students, the inquiry should not stop
there. While emotional support animals
are not service animals as defined by the
ADA, they may be permitted as a reasonable accommodation under other law. 26
For example, Title I of the ADA
requires public employers to offer reasonable accommodations to employees
with disabilities and is silent as to service
animals. (The detailed regulations for
service animals come from Title II of the
ADA, which addresses public facilities
generally.) Thus, when an employee with
a disability has a comfort animal, the
district should engage in an interactive
While emotional support animals are not
service animals as defined by the ADA,
they may be permitted as a reasonable
accommodation under other law.
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