Officials with the Saugerties Central School District say they’ve further affirmed the district’s commitment to inclusiveness and accessibility by setting a policy about the use of assistance animals, including service animals and therapy dogs.
“The District recognizes the important of service animals and affirms its commitment to allowing the use of these animals by individuals with disabilities on school ground to facilitate their full participation in and equal access to District services, programs and activities,” reads the introduction of Policy 3160, adopted by the Board of Education during a meeting held on Tuesday, June 14.
The policy differentiates between service animals and “emotional support, therapy, comfort or companion animals” in terms of accessibility and purpose. Service animals are identified as “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental disability,” which does not include other wild or domestic, trained or untrained animals.
“The work or tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the individual’s disability,” reads the service animal portion of the policy, and not included among those tasks are the crime-deterrent effects of the animal’s presence, or its ability to offer emotional well-being or comfort. However, psychiatric service animals that have been trained for a specific purpose to help avoid an anxiety attack or reduce its effects may qualify as a service animal at the district’s discretion.
Also allowable under the discretion of district officials are miniature horses.
“Thus use will only be permitted where a miniature horse has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks to benefit an individual with a disability,” reads the policy, which stipulates that they will be subject to the considerations and restrictions of state and federal laws.
Superintendent Kirk Reinhardt said last week that the service animals portion of the policy details what was already legally allowable in the district.
“By law, if a student who identifies as having a special need requires a service dog, obviously, they’re going to have that,” he said, adding that given the district’s recent focus on mental health, having a portion of the policy dedicated to therapy animals was also important.
“We’ve been talking about it a lot, especially with the (Covid-19) pandemic and anxiety,” Reinhardt said. “And if it’s a service animal or therapy dog, it’s nice to know that we have the protocols and policies in place that we can meet the needs of students.”
The policy identifies a therapy dog as being trained, evaluated and certified to work with a handler “to provide affection and comfort to individuals in a variety of settings, including schools,” noting that therapy dogs are not covered by the same laws regarding service animals. Further, the policy notes that the certification of a therapy dog and its handler should be through a recognized organization like the American Kennel Club or Therapy Dogs International.
The policy also stipulates a specific process by which a therapy dog must be registered to be allowed on school grounds. Reinhardt added that with either service animals or therapy dogs, the query should begin at the school level.
“What they need to do is go through their building, either their social worker, psychologist or building leader (principal),” Reinhardt said, adding that the process from there is different for either the service animal or therapy dog category.
“If it’s more discretionary, like a therapy dog, then the request would go through the channels as it would for any other special request, like if a child needed a speech therapist or something like that,” Reinhardt said.
The next meeting of the SCSD Board of Education is scheduled for Tuesday, July 12.