The U.S. Department of Education is investigating whether Roseburg Public Schools discriminated against a student after it denied the student’s request to bring a service dog to school.
The battle ramped up in October 2015, after Katie Thompson asked the school district to allow her daughter, Kierra Grace Thompson, now age 12, to bring her service dog to school. After nearly 10 months of meetings, email exchanges and observations, the district denied the family’s request, suggesting instead that the dog, a young Labrador retriever named Peanut, could only attend school if accompanied by a private handler.
Faced with the denial, the family’s attorney filed a discrimination complaint form with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. In March, the department agreed to investigate the complaint. If the school district is found to be at fault and refuses to reach a resolution, or avoids negotiations, it could see its federal funding suspended or terminated.
Kierra and Peanut
Kierra had her first seizure when she was just 11 months old. Born with several tumors in her brain, caused by a rare condition called tuberous sclerosis, Kierra’s non-cancerous tumors have caused both autistic behaviors and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, the most severe type of childhood epilepsy. Over the course of her young life, Kierra has endured thousands of seizures.
Because of her educational and health needs, a one-on-one aide helps Kierra throughout the entire school day, ensuring she doesn’t wander away during the day or eat non-food materials, such as dirt, paper and clay — an eating disorder called pica.
In 2014 the Thompson family brought home Peanut, an autism and seizure assistance service animal trained, among other things, to alert Kierra’s caregivers in the event of a seizure and to prevent Kierra from wandering, a common behavior associated with autism.
Trained by Little Angels Service Dogs, a Californian nonprofit, Peanut received a minimum of 600 hours of one-on-one instruction from volunteer foster families and trainers before he graduated. Afterward, Peanut moved to the Little Angels Ranch full-time to receive daily lessons to perfect his obedience and specialized assistance tasks, according to the organization’s website.
By the end of the process, obtaining a service dog can cost up to $24,000, according to nonprofit’s website. To help offset the cost, a community concert in Myrtle Creek was held, which helped raise $10,000.
Kierra’s mother said Peanut has been an invaluable asset to her daughter. When the family moved to a new house in Roseburg, Kierra wasn’t comfortable with the change.
“Peanut was able to provide her some familiarity and was able to calm her down and help her,” she said.
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About a year after the fundraiser, on October 23, 2015, the Thompson’s attorney reached out to the school district and its attorney, Dan Clark, to start a conversation about Peanut accompanying Kierra. For the next three months, Kierra’s attorney, Elizabeth Polay, of Portland-based Wiscarson Law, a firm specializing in special education law and disability advocacy, struggled with the district to nail down a meeting date.
In one email exchange, Polay told the district the Thompsons would be available for a conference call before 10 a.m., and between 11 a.m. and 3:15 p.m. on a few specific dates in December.
According to the complaint, Clark asked whether a 3 p.m. call could work — allocating only 15 minutes for the conversation to take place.
Three months into bouncing dates back and forth, Clark responded to an email saying he had been “relieved of duty” and that the family would have to contact the district’s new attorney, Richard Cohn-Lee.
Three more months passed by until the district made itself available for a conference call on April 25, 2016, but according to the complaint, technical difficulties delayed the call so that by the time the phone’s settings were adjusted the “district’s meeting participants had left and no meeting occurred.”
Finally, on May 11 — more than six months after the initial request — a meeting was held to discuss the request. During that meeting, Cohn-Lee asked why Peanut was needed since Kierra was not currently experiencing grand mal seizures and that the school’s staff was managing Kierra’s needs. The district also expressed concern about how Peanut would act around other children while at school, according to the complaint.
During the meeting, the district agreed to have Kristin Schriner, a Developmental Learning Center teacher at Fir Grove Elementary School, observe Peanut at Kierra’s home and classroom. After observing Peanut on May 23, Schriner wrote in a report that Peanut’s “demeanor changed to a ‘working’ mode” when he retrieved his vest, and that he did not react to children touching him, petting him, or grabbing his fur, according to the complaint. Schriner also wrote that Peanut positioned himself under the table when instructed and followed all commands.
During a July meeting where Schriner’s observations were reviewed, the district suggested that Peanut attend school with Kierra during summertime educational services and that a parent could attend school with Kierra to act as Peanut’s personal handler.
Polay objected, arguing that Kierra would be distracted during the day if her mother was in the classroom, something Schriner agreed with, according to the complaint. Regardless, the district’s Director of Student Services, Rick Burton, said the district wanted to collect more data about Peanut’s performance and wanted to schedule more observations after the summer trial period.
At this point, the district agreed to provide a written response regarding Thompson’s request to have Peanut attend school without a private handler by Aug. 2, 2016, but despite sending emails on Aug. 4 and Aug. 10, the Thompsons did not receive a letter until Aug. 12, according to the complaint.
In the letter, the district reiterated that Peanut would not be allowed to attend school with Kierra unless a private handler or parent accompanied the dog, denying the Thompson’s request.
Polay said she was confused by the district’s decision.
“(Kierra) has an adult with her all the time and the disagreement we’re having is whether that adult could help her with giving some of the commands or occasionally holding the leash,” Polay said.
“It doesn’t seem like a lot to say to a dog, ‘down’ or ‘stay’ or ‘come’,” she said. “The dog doesn’t have to be fed during the day, it doesn’t need water, it’s trained not to have to be outside throughout the day, so it’s really confusing.”
Kierra’s mother agreed, saying the process was frustrating.
“The dog is very well trained, my daughter has a clear need — it’s just horrible,” she said. “It’s a mental battle because they always want to say ‘no’ without actually listening to you.”
The News-Review reached out to Roseburg Public Schools Superintendent Gerry Washburn, Director of Student Services Rick Burton and Developmental Learning Center teacher Kristin Schriner but none were willing to provide a comment, although Washburn acknowledged that the complaint had been filed and that the district was “working on that process.”
Burton said confidentiality laws prohibited the district from commenting.
“It puts the district in kind of an uncomfortable spot because the district cannot respond to any sort of feedback because of confidentiality clauses, but people on the outside can make comments that often times may not be accurate,” he said.
A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education also declined to comment about the case, adding that the department, as a policy, does not discuss details of cases under investigation.
Point of contention
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, service animals must generally be allowed to “accompany people with disabilities in all areas of the facility where the public is normally allowed to go.” Even allergies and fear of dogs are not valid reasons to deny access of a service animal, according to the ADA.
A person with a service animal can be asked to remove the animal if the dog is out of control and the handler doesn’t make an effort to control the dog, or if the dog is not housebroken. The ADA also mentions that staff are not required to “provide care or food for a service animal,” which may be a point of contention for the district.
Kierra is severally developmentally delayed and does not have the ability to verbally communicate or physically control Peanut. While Katie Thompson and Polay insist any additional tasks could easily be completed by the one-on-one aide Kierra already has, they say the district might feel differently.
“I just want the community to be aware of what our local schools are doing in violation of the ADA,” Katie Thompson said. “I know of people who are afraid to purchase a service dog for their child because they won’t be able to have their dog attend school.”
In addition to being trained for seizure alert and to tether Kierra to prevent wandering, Peanut helps Kierra focus at school, according to her mother.
During the trial period at school, Peanut would position himself underneath Kierra who would slip off her shoes and run her feet through his fur.
“She needs that sensory input — it’s like breathing to her,” said Katie Thompson. “It’s in her brain to seek input and if she has that input, she can focus and learn, so it’s directly affecting her education by not having her dog at school.
“And if this (complaint) can help my daughter, it might be able to help somebody else,” she said.
To file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights click here.