A federal judge in the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Arkansas in Little Rock ruled Wednesday against a 16-year-old student and her family’s request for the use for a service animal at Conway High School.
Angelia Pettus and her daughter, both Conway residents, originally filed a lawsuit against the Conway School District in November under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) claiming the school violated the girl’s rights to use the animal for her disability — she suffers from severe anxiety and depression disorder.
On Wednesday, Chief U.S. District Judge Brian S. Miller denied a preliminary injunction request by Thomas Nichols, an attorney for Disability Rights Arkansas, on behalf of the student and her family to allow the 16-year-old to return to school with her miniature Australian shepherd dog, Dobbie.
The groups met in court Dec. 19 for a motion hearing where Miller heard arguments from both sides.
Pettus contacted the principal of the high school back in May 2018 about her daughter’s new service animal, trained to alert by nudging the 16-year-old prior to her experiencing panic attacks, therefore, assisting in preparation and prevention of attacks, trained to blanket the student by applying pressure to calm and decrease length of attacks when unpreventable and trained to block the student from large crowds, a trigger to her attacks.
Then-principal Jason Lawrence advised Pettus the 16-year-old would first need a 504 plan, which, according to the U.S. Department of Education, is a federal law designed to protect the rights of those with disabilities in programs and activities that receive federal financial aid, including public schools.
A 504 plan was developed by the district in August with accommodations for the 16 year old: early release from class to avoid packed hallways, permission to go to the nurse or counselor at onset of panic attack, permission to move seats or briefly exit class at panic attack onset and preferential seating.
In addition, per court documents, the district also offered: to keep the student’s medicine in the school nurse’s office, alert the student before drills so she could avoid crowds, allow her to be in an alternative location during assemblies, have extra time on assignments, and wear a weighted vest during panic attacks.
The district’s lawyer, Jay Bequette, told Judge Miller during the motion hearing in December that because the service animal, Dobbie, wasn’t listed as an accommodation, the family refused the 504 plan.
From that, Pettus requested a meeting with the 504 committee regarding the service animal, according to court documents and after the committee — consists of teachers, administrators, counselors — met Oct. 23, it made a decision to deny the family’s request citing concerns about whether the student required a service animal at all, allergies and possible disturbances to the educational environment.
The issue on the table, Miller said to both sides during the hearing, was whether the issues cited by the district were enough to deny the student her service animal or whether the needs of the student outweighed the needs of the other classmates.
He said he understood where the district, which had thousands of students to look out for, was coming from; what if every student wanted to claim their animal was a service animal? — but also understood that the student was just that … a student who wanted to get an education and use the facilities like the rest of her peers.
Miller said it seemed like everyone, both Pettus and the district, agreed that the daughter classified as a student with a disability but what they didn’t agree on was the solution.
“You raise very good questions about striking a balance,” Nichols said, responding to Miller.
Nichols said that because of the American Disabilities Act, though, a balance wasn’t needed; that the law states that a public entity, the school, had a mandatory obligation to admit. It didn’t come down to maybe, but states, “shall,” modify policy for the use of a service animal.
Past court cases were references, more arguments were made by both sides but ultimately, Miller said he wanted to put off an order, take time to research the issue personally and would come back before school started in January — it begins Jan. 8. — to present a formal decision, which was made on Wednesday.
“A preliminary injunction is an extraordinary remedy,” the legal standard portion of the court’s order reads in part. “A party seeking a preliminary injunction must prove that: (1) she will suffer irreparable harm if the injunction is denied; (2) the harm to the movant, if the injunction is denied, outweighs the harm to the non-movant if the injunction is granted; (3) there is a likelihood of success on the merits; and (4) an injunction is in the public’s interest.”
In addition, the district’s motion to dismiss on the grounds that Pettus failed to exhaust her administrative remedies was also denied by Miller.
Documents stated that Pettus was not required to exhaust the “administrative remedies” because she isn’t attempting to enforce the student’s right to a free appropriate public education (FAPE) defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
“Plaintiffs seeking relief under the IDEA must comply with the IDEA’s exhaustion requirement even if they do not bring an IDEA claim,” documents read, adding that exhaustion isn’t required when a lawsuit against a school seeks something other than FAPE.
To have obtained the preliminary junction, Pettus must have showed that she was likely to succeed at trial, a burden documents said she had not met — she must’ve shown Conway was a public entity, the student was a individual with a disability, the district’s action’s excluded the student from school, its benefits or discriminated against her.
“Although the first two elements have been satisfied, Pettus has not shown that excluding Dobbie from school will deprive [the student] from participation in school, deny her benefits, or subject her to discrimination,” documents state.
In addition, the ADA also requires a public entity modify its policies to accommodate disabled person’s service animal — to be applied when service animal itself is a reasonable accommodation — but not require the district to provide this specific modification requested by Pettus.
“Requiring the district to permit [the student] to bring Dobbie to school is unreasonable,” court documents read. “First, a dog’s presence in the classroom would be distracting to other students, even if the dog is well-behaved.”
For those with allergies, documents state, a dog could be “truly disruptive,” compounded if multiple students were permitted to bring dogs to school.
Second, the student’s anxiety attacks happen “infrequently” and while they detract from her schooling, permitting Dobbie is not necessary when she has other means to of controlling both the frequency and severity of the attacks,” documents state.
Due to the many accommodations that were offered and refused, the court decided it would be unclear whether Dobbie would make a significant impact.
“Third, [the student] is a high-achieving student who seems engaged in and out of the classroom,” documents read. “She is an A-student, participates in band, and attends football games. While her anxiety interrupts her ability to participate fully, it does not deny her the opportunity to meaningfully participate and receive both the educational and social benefits of attending school.”
For its final reason for the injunction denial, the court referenced the district’s staff’s appropriate ability to make decisions that would affect school.
“Staffed by experienced educators and administrators who are responsible for educating many students in addition to [this student], [it’s] determination that bringing Dobbie to school is unreasonable is one factor weighing against permitting it,” documents state.
The Log Cabin Democrat reached out to Nichols and the district’s lawyer, Jay Bequette of Bequette & Billingsley, PA., on Thursday.
Nichols said because the case is still open to litigation, he couldn’t comment much but did say he will be talking to his client to see how what their next step will be but that was all he said he could say.
“The district was pleased with the decision issued by the court,” Bequette told the LCD.
He added Miller’s order “reaffirmed the district’s” commitment to ensure that all students, including the “one in question,” are able to take full advantage of the educational opportunities offered to them by the Conway School District.
A jury trial for the case has been set for sometime during the week of Dec. 2, 2019, in the Little Rock courtroom before Miller.