Dog helps stabilize autistic boy's life, but Hillsboro school says not in the classroom
By Wendy Owen, The Oregonian
January 10, 2010, 11:00PM
Madison, a 2-year-old German shepherd, is trained to assist his 9-year-old buddy, Scooter Givens. But the $13,000 dog spends most of his time at home after the Hillsboro School District said he was not necessary for Scooter's educational progress at school.
Every day, Scooter Givens tries to hit his third-grade classmates and instructors at Patterson Elementary where he attends class for children with severe autism.
Sounds that surprise him, especially crying children, can send the 9-year-old Hillsboro boy into yelling, flailing "meltdowns," which have lasted more than an hour.
Eric and Wendy Givens know Madison, a trained autism service dog, can calm their son; they've seen the German shepherd do so at malls, in parking lots, at restaurants. But the Hillsboro School District won't allow the dog in school, saying Scooter is doing well without the shepherd.
The U.S. Department of Justice is currently investigating a complaint filed by Disability Rights Oregon on behalf of the Givenses. The outcome could affect other families in Oregon that hope to use autism service dogs in schools.
The argument pits special education law against the Americans With Disabilities Act. Although the district argues that the dog is not necessary for Scooter's classroom education, the family says the dog improves the boy's access to his education by keeping him calm.
Disability Rights Oregon attorney Joel Greenberg equated the situation to a person who is blind being told he does fine with a cane even though a trained guide dog is more effective.
"Essentially, the school district is saying, 'we get to pick the tool,'" he said.
Hillsboro Superintendent Mike Scott said it's an issue of process.
"We agree that across-the-board exclusion of a service animal would not be appropriate." But, he said, "If we have a student that is doing well in school, is there a need for a service animal?"
The district had raised concerns over allergies and other students' fears of dogs, but Scott said those are "not the issue."
The debate also hinges on whether Madison is considered a service or a therapy animal. In other words, is he the equivalent of a guide dog for the blind or is he a well-trained pet?
Therapy animals are not covered under the Americans With Disabilities Act, but they are growing in popularity and are often used in hospitals to comfort patients and in schools where children read to them. The training is not as extensive as it is for a service animal.
The Americans With Disabilities Act describes a service animal as "any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including, but not limited to, guiding individuals with impaired vision, alerting individuals with impaired hearing to intruders or sounds, providing minimal protection or rescue work, pulling a wheelchair, or fetching dropped items."
In the case of Scooter, the dog is usually tethered to the boy. Scooter, whose given name is Jordan, wears a belt that is attached to a harness on Madison. When Scooter tries to bolt, the dog sits or digs his claws into the ground and pulls back, stopping Scooter.
Madison runs toward Scooter Givens, right, and his sister, Hayden Givens, during a tracking exercise. The dog is trained to assist Scooter, who has autism. If something startles Scooter and he works himself into a violent on-the-floor "meltdown," the dog puts his paw on the boy. If that doesn't work, Madison stands over him and then lies down on Scooter. The flailing and yelling stop almost immediately, and Scooter can get back on task, said Wendy Givens. Should Scooter run off and can't be found, Madison is trained to track him with the command, "Where's your boy?"
Madison's primary mission is to keep Scooter safe and calm. He has 500 hours of training from simple obedience to advanced skills, said Karen Shirk, founder, 4 Paws for Ability Inc. a nonprofit in Ohio that trains dogs for people with various disabilities, including autism.
Here, its hard to get a dog classified as a "service" dog. The difference seems to be whether the animal supplies an emotional/behavorial task (therapy animal) or a physical task (service animal).