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Student wins fight to bring dog to class

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Posted: Wednesday, June 17, 2009 12:00 pm | Updated: 8:08 am, Thu Aug 16, 2012.

By Rebecca LaFlure

Killeen Daily Herald

A 14-year-old epileptic student is back in school following a nearly monthlong battle with the Killeen Independent School District.

Ninth-grader Heather Jones attended summer school classes at Harker Heights High School on Tuesday alongside her certified service dog, Della.

Until Tuesday, the 4-year-old Rottweiler – who senses when Heather will have a seizure – was banned from accompanying the ninth-grader to class.

It was a significant victory for Heather and her family, but Heather insists this is just the beginning of their fight.

Her family, represented by attorney Dan Corbin, plans to file a lawsuit against the district for what they claim was a violation of her civil rights. They hope the civil suit will persuade the KISD school board to develop a policy that specifically allows the use of certified service dogs in its schools.

"What we're going through, nobody should have to go through. It's just wrong,"

Heather said after a media conference at Corbin's office Tuesday.

"I hope to develop a policy so nobody should have to go through this."

KISD spokeswoman Leslie Gilmore said the district does not have a board-adopted policy in regard to service animals, but does have written administrative procedures.

"While it sometimes takes a few days to complete all the steps associated with introducing a service dog into a classroom, the district clearly allows the use of service dogs within the schools when it is appropriate," according to a KISD statement released Tuesday.

Before the dog is allowed in school, district officials must receive documentation that the dog is trained and certified, receive certification from a licensed veterinarian that the dog is in good health, ensure that the school staff is properly trained to handle the dog and determine whether accommodations need to be made for other students with allergies, the statement said.

Heather's problems with the district began when, on Wednesday May 20, she had multiple seizures during class at Eastern Hills Middle School. Until then, Heather had not suffered a seizure in four years.

Heather spent two days in the critical care unit at King's Daughters Hospital in Temple, and a family friend brought Della to visit Heather in the hospital.

Heather had shown the dog at American Kennel Club events in the past. It was there that Heather and Della's bond grew. During her time at King's Daughters, Della alerted hospital staff whenever Heather was about to have a seizure.

"Della has saved my daughter's life three different times," said Andrea Jones, Heather's mother. "If it wasn't for Della, we wouldn't have known my daughter was going to have a seizure and she could've died. Della's a hero."

Once Heather was released from the hospital, Jones said she informed administrators at Eastern Hills that Heather would return to school with Della as her service dog. To her surprise, KISD officials refused to allow the dog on campus, she said.

As a result, Heather – who would not attend school without the dog – did not return to school to complete her eighth-grade year. She could not participate in cheerleading practice, her graduation ceremony or her graduation dance.

Heather was still promoted to ninth grade despite her absence.

A hearing was held on Thursday, June 4 with Heather's family and KISD officials regarding Della's status as a service dog. On June 12, KISD acknowledged Della as a service dog.

But when Heather's first day of summer school came, KISD officials forbade Della from entering the building.

Corbin said the district's refusal to allow the dog on campus is a violation of the Texas Human Resources Code, Section 121, which states, "No person with a disability may be denied the use of a white cane, assistance animal, wheelchair, crutches, or other device of assistance."

When asked why Della could not accompany Heather on her first day of summer school, Gilmore said it sometimes takes a few days to complete the steps necessary to introduce the dog into a classroom.

She said a letter was sent home on Monday informing parents that a service dog would be assisting one of the students.

Gilmore could not say whether the school board would consider developing a policy about service dogs.

For now, Heather is happy her four-legged friend is permited to go to school with her.

"Everybody ignored her, like she wasn't even there," she said, talking about her first day of class. "She slept under my desk except when we had a break."

Robin Wheeler, the co-owner of Sit Means Sit dog training company in Belton and Della's previous owner, said she is currently working with another family whose autistic son uses a certified service dog.

"The child is too young to be at school right now, but that is something that is coming, and he has autism. His mother is fighting that fight as well," Wheeler said.

Corbin said his main goal is to prevent a similar situation from happening again.

"She and her mom have gone through a lot of frustration. It's been a very traumatic time for the family," Corbin said of his clients. "I hope this serves as an incentive for the development of a district policy so no one else goes through this."

Contact Rebecca LaFlure at rlaflure@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7548.

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