When Autistic Son Denied Service Dog, Mom Bites Back

Filed under: Medical Conditions, In The News, Development: Big Kids

autistic dog

A Florida school district doesn't want any doggone service animals. Credit: Jennifer Hlad/Capital News Service/MCT

What's with the Collier County School District in Naples, Fla., and dogs?

A dog could get the distinct impression he's not wanted in southwest Florida schools. District officials just refused to a let a 6-year-old boy with autism bring his service dog to school.

The Naples Daily News reports this decision comes eight months after district officials agreed to pay $125,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by the parents of another boy denied a service dog.

William and Brenda Hughes filed the suit, claiming the district violated, among other laws, the Americans with Disabilities Act. They argued their son, Derek, needed a dog to help him deal with both autism and epilepsy.

The current case involves John "J.C." Bowen, a 6-year-old with autism. His mother, Elizabeth Lasanta, tells the Daily News he needs the dog because it helps her son remain calm in class and can respond properly if he has a seizure.

School officials say Lasanta fails to make a convincing argument. District policy defines a service animal as "an animal trained to accompany its owner or handler for the purpose of carrying items, retrieving objects, pulling a wheelchair, alerting the owner or handler to medical conditions or other such activities of service or support necessary to mitigate a disability."

Sorry, they say. Pepsi the yellow retriever just doesn't qualify.

Lasanta tells the Daily News the school district has another fight on its hands.

"You wouldn't deny a student the right to bring an asthma inhaler to school if he had a prescription," she tells the newspaper. "My son has a prescription for his service dog."

The fight is already a year old. It began in preschool, when Lasanta tried to get a service dog added to her boy's individualized education plan.

"Given John's progress, a service dog was not needed for the purposes of the individualized education plan that we had developed for John to provide him with an appropriate education," Estates Elementary Principal Francine Eufemia wrote in a letter to Lasanta.

The letter adds that school officials "considered the mother's request to have the dog in public areas of the school so that J.C. could bond with the dog."

That part really ticked Lasanta off.

"My son doesn't need to bond with his dog," she tells the Daily News. "That was not the reason for my request."

Jon Fishbane, the Collier County School District's attorney, tells the newspaper he can't comment on the issue. School officials and Bowen's family are in the middle of a hearing, which resumes in December.

The $125,000 school officials agreed to pay in April to the Hughes family included a provision that the district doesn't have to admit it did anything wrong.

The Daily News also reports the money will be paid by the district's insurance carrier and doesn't involve any direct district funds.

As part of the settlement, the newspaper reports, the Hughes family agreed to drop all complaints and not to enroll Derek in Collier County Public Schools ever again.

Lasanta tells the Daily News she's not going anyway. Unlike the Hughes, she says, she can't afford to settle out of court and get out of Dodge. If school officials want to fight, they better make some sandwiches. It could be a long siege, she says.

"We have 14 more years with my kids in this school district," she tells the paper. "We can play nice. Or we can battle it out. But I will not have the district infringing on his rights."

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.