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Feds Sue NY School District for Discrimination & Violating Service Animal Requirements of ADA
by Pamela Wright, MA, MSW & Peter W.D. Wright, Esq.


On September 29 2015, the Department of Justice filed suit against the Gates-Chili Central School District for refusing to allow a third grader with disabilities to attend school with her service dog unless her parent provides a separate adult handler for the dog.

Devyn and family


The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Rochester New York, alleges that the Gates-Chili School District violated Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). (Read the Complaint)

“It is no longer acceptable – if ever it was – for a district to refuse reasonable modifications to a child who seeks to handle her own service dog ... Certainly since passage of the American with Disabilities Act in 1990, such failure not only violates the dictates of conscience, it also violates the law” said U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. of the Western District of New York.

Devyn's mom said, “It means everything to us to know that the United States of America is willing to sue Gates Chili because of the discrimination they have shown to my little girl.”

Meet Devyn

Devyn is a 8-year-old third grader who has a neurodevelopmental genetic disorder called Angelman Syndrome, severe epilepsy, autism and other disabilities.

Devyn and Hannah

 

Devyn is in a class for medically fragile children. She has a one-to-one aide who helps her with schoolwork and a nurse who administers medicine. She is essentially non-verbal but has limited communication via sign language and a speech-generating device called a DynaVox.

Devyn also has a service dog named Hannah. Hannah is trained to spot the signals of a impending seizure and alert her caregivers. Hannah also keeps the child from wandering and provides mobility support so Devyn can walk independently.

Because of her disabilities, Devyn needs minimal assistance to handle her dog during the school day — mainly tethering the dog and issuing limited verbal commands.

Three Years and Counting: Expenses & Legal Fees Mount

When Devyn attended preschool, the school district allowed her to bring Hannah to school and allowed school staff to help.

But when Devyn entered Kindergarten in 2012, the district reversed course and changed their policies and procedures. Devyn would not be allowed to bring her service dog to school unless her parent provided a separate adult handler. The child’s 1:1 aide or other school staff - who already assist Devyn during the school day - were no longer allowed to help.

Since 2012, the parent has paid a handler to accompany Hannah and Devyn to school. The handler says she spends about 15 minutes a day “handling” Hannah - typically when the dog’s leash needs to be untangled. Devyn's mom is paying $1,400 a month - about $17,000 a year - to jump through this unlawful hoop.

In 2012, Devyn's mom filed a complaint with the Department of Justice.

After a long, thorough investigation, the Department of Justice issued a letter of finding in April 2015. DOJ ordered the school district to reverse its policy and pay compensatory damages to the family for injuries they suffered because the district failed to comply with the ADA.

Read Letter of Findings at www.scribd.com/doc/261760192/DOJ-Findings-Re-Gates-Chili-Pereira

The Gates-Chili Central School District refused to comply and appealed to the Education Department.


A local reporter filed a Freedom on Information request for the district's legal bills and obtained 38 pages of bills for 154 hours of legal work on this case in less than two years. (Read article about legal fees including bills from the school board attorneys.)

Between October 2013 and May 2015, the dispute between the district and the DOJ about Devyn’s service dog has cost the taxpayers more than $34,000 in legal fees - on top of the $17,000 a year that Devyn's mom has paid to a handler since 2012 - a handler who works about 15 minutes a day.

And the fight isn't over yet.

Title II of the ADA

Title II of the ADA requires that no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs or activities of a public entity or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity.

The service animal provisions of the Title II regulation apply the regulation’s reasonable modifications requirement and provide that, in general, a public entity like a public school must modify its policies, practices, and procedures to permit an individual with a disability to use a service animal, subject to specific, enumerated exceptions.

DOJ’s complaint seeks a declaratory judgment that the District violated the ADA; an order requiring the District to permit the student to act as the handler of her service dog with assistance from school staff; and compensatory damages for the student and her parent.

Devyn’s mother says she and Devyn are thankful for the help they received from the Department of Justice, the nonprofit legal group Empire Justice, state Assemblyman Joseph Morelle, D-Irondequoit and especially from the community that "helped keep us in this, even when the district has worked so hard to exhaust us and make us feel defeated."

Speak Up! Heather in front of blllboard near school

More Information about the DOJ v. Gates-Chili School District Case

Complaint filed by the DOJ: http://www.ada.gov/gateschili/gateschili_complaint.html

Frequently Asked Questions about Service Animals and the ADA: www.ada.gov/regs2010/service_animal_qa.pdf

Discrimination Under Section 504 and the ADAA: www.wrightslaw.com/info/sec504.index.htm

Complaints of disability discrimination may be filed online at www.ada.gov/filing_complaint.htm

To learn more about this case, visit the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle site: www.democratandchronicle.com/

Call the Justice Department's toll-free ADA Information Line at 1-800-514-0301 or 1-800-514-0383 (TDD) or access the ADA web site at www.ada.gov/

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Protection & Advocacy Services

The National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) - nonprofit membership organization for the federally mandated Protection and Advocacy (P&A) Systems and Client Assistance Programs (CAP) for individuals with disabilities. Collectively, the P&A/CAP network is the largest provider of legally based advocacy services to people with disabilities in the United States.

Created on 09/29/15

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