As I have been rolling this blog post around in my head, I kept trying to think of some clever way to say that we won our battle with the Dallas Independent School District (DISD). I even googled “victory quotes,” but none of them seemed quite appropriate. They all talked about struggle and bloodshed. In truth, there was very little struggle involved in this victory. I think the greatest stressor (for all of the parties involved) was the anticipation of the long contentious fight that loomed over us. But, once we all sat down at the table, it was quite civil.
In a nutshell, the school district had a hard time understanding what Hope would do for Gray. Because they had already agreed to provide Gray with a one-on-one aide, they did not see why a service dog would be necessary for him at school. Additionally, they were very concerned over who would care for Hope during the day. Of course, these were valid concerns that I was happy to address. The problem came when DISD legal became involved. Suddenly, the district’s curiosity and concern looked more confrontational. Fortunately, I had two big advantages: I’m married to a lawyer who has spent the last 15+ years arguing cases in federal court, and another family who received their dog from ASDA fought this exact same battle in federal court in California. We arrived at our first meeting well prepared.
I explained that there are, in fact, things that Hope can do better than any person. When Gray has to transition from one activity or location to the next, he does not understand the explanation or cues that teachers give him. This often results in a meltdown that can last for over an hour. With Hope, a simple snap of his belt into the tether on her service pack is all the information he needs to understand that it is time for him to move on to the next thing. With Hope, he can walk independently (in his mind) while holding onto her handle and no one has to grab him to keep him from running off. Additionally, if a meltdown does occur, just snapping him into his tether and telling him to get up is often all that he needs to snap out of the tantrum and move on to another activity. These things make it easier for everyone to get through the day with less drama and more education. Most importantly, Gray has learned that he does not go anywhere outside of our home unless Hope is with him. He depends on her guidance. If we sent him to school (a large part of his life) without her, we would risk undoing the bond that he has come to rely upon.
I also explained that Hope’s care at school is really quite minimal. She does not need bathroom breaks during the day or meals. She only needs a cup of water at lunchtime and a few treats throughout the day for doing a good job. Ironically, that is much less care than any of the children in the classroom require. The aide or teacher who is working with Gray only needs to know about 10 commands and how to hold Hope’s leash. Granted, there is training that I need to provide, but the actual skills are minimal.
At the end of our first meeting, the teachers and the principal all agreed that having Hope at school with Gray would not be a problem. In fact, they stated that they were excited to welcome her to the school. That was the point when the attorney for the district let us all know that teachers and the principal were expressing opinions that were in violation of district policy. We had to call a recess so that the district could take time to review the federal case we showed them and consider changing their policy. When we reconvened a week later to hear the district’s decision, Barry and I were both prepared to hear a “no.” Barry was ready to file suit and I was ready to call the television networks. We were delighted when the attorney surprised us by saying that they considered our request to be a “reasonable accommodation” and they were ready to allow Hope to come to school.
I am pleased that the fight was so short and civilized. I am humbled by the teachers and principal who were willing to risk their jobs by speaking up for something they believed in. One of Gray’s therapists told me that she was glad it was our family that had to go through this. I agree. I suspect that many other families would have been intimidated or overwhelmed at the prospect of legal action. I know that other families may have given up without a fight. That is why we were ready for one. I am proud to say that, starting tomorrow, DISD will have its first service dog attending school. Now, the doors will be open for the next family that finds themselves on a path similar to ours.
“Victory belongs to the most persevering” – Napoleon Bonaparte