For six-year-old J.C. Bowen, his golden retriever, Pepsi, is more than just his best friend. J.C. has autism, and Pepsi helps him get through day-to-day life. He's trained to stop J.C. from running off, rocking, banging his head, and having a meltdown. Pepsi helped J.C. develop his balance and he learned to respond to J.C.'s seizures by keeping him from falling, alerting people when J.C. needs help, and keeping him calm before, during and after an episode.
It wasn't easy bringing J.C. and Pepsi together. Elizabeth Lasanta, J.C.'s mom, spent 15 months searching for help for her son. After talking to different service dog organizations, she finally connected with East Coast Assistance Dogs, who helped them find funding and the right companion.
Elizabeth said she's never seen an organization like ECAD. Not only do they help kids like J.C., but they also teach at-risk kids to train service dogs. They're accredited by Assistance Dogs International, which is above and beyond what the Americans with Disabilities Act requires of service dogs.
But none of that — not Pepsi's background, his training or all the ways he protects J.C. from harm and helps him get through life — made any difference to the Collier County School District. They told Elizabeth that J.C. had to leave his service dog at home.
Pepsi meets the federal definition of a service dog, as well as the district's definition of an animal trained for "... alerting the owner or handler to medical conditions, or other such activities or support necessary to mitigate a disability." District policy also says the dog should be certified by ADI, which Pepsi is.
Elizabeth attended meeting after meeting with school officials, but they continued to deny the request, saying they didn't see any benefit to Pepsi attending school with J.C. "No one had asked how he helped J.C.," Elizabeth said. "I wasn't even sure why the teacher and principal should even have any say in the 'brand of wheelchair,' how I choose to mitigate his disabilities."
For the Hughes family, J.C.'s situation is a case of deja vu. They went through almost the exact same circus with the school district, their son Derek, and his service dog four years ago. After suing the school for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Act, the Hughes ended up pulling their son from the school and eventually settling out of court for $125,000.
According Naples News Bill Hughes' advice for Elizabeth Lasanta is: "Relocate out of the state. Get the child in a school where they value civil rights."
But Elizabeth says she doesn't have the luxury of moving, so she's going to keep fighting for J.C.'s right to bring his service dog to school.
It's not just students who are denied the assistance of service animals. Carol Christopherson of Florida Service Dogs, Inc. was stopped at the door when she tried to enter the school with her service for a hearing. She had to call a state official before the school got the message that denying her dog entry was a violation of the ADA.
The district "wouldn't deny a student the right to bring an asthma inhaler to school if he had a prescription." Elizabeth Lasanta says, "My son has a prescription for his service dog."
The school has gone so far as refusing to acknowledge that J.C. has a seizure disorder. So, in addition to navigating all the local, state and federal education and disability laws, now a neurologist is being brought in for the next hearing on December 7, 2010.
Elizabeth said, "We have 14 more years with my kids in this school district. We can play nice or we can battle it out. But I will not have the district infringing on his rights."
Cathy Cannivet, another parent who has had to fight the school district, told the Naples News that she was optimistic that between the groundwork laid by the Hughes case, Elizabeth's determination and good lawyers, they have a real chance of prevailing in getting the school to accept J.C.'s service dog.
Tell Collier County School District to let J.C. bring Pepsi to school. Families shouldn't have to move because a school district refuses to recognize service dogs.
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Board Chair of Naples, Florida Collier County School District
Alternative Schools, Avalon Elementary, East Naples Middle, Gulfview Middle, Lake Park Elementary, Naples High, Poinciana Elementary, Sea Gate Elementary, Walker Institute of Technology, and Walker Technical High School.
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