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A Conway School District senior who wants to bring her service dog to school shouldn't be permitted to pursue a federal lawsuit over the district's opposition to the request, the district said Wednesday.

In response to a Nov. 21 federal lawsuit the girl's mother filed on her behalf, and an accompanying request for an injunction ordering the district to allow the dog in class, an attorney for the district said the requests are premature and don't present a sufficient legal dilemma to be resolved in court.

Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Miller has set a hearing for 2 p.m. Dec. 19 in his Little Rock courtroom on the girl's request for a preliminary injunction, but the hearing would be called off if Miller grants the district's requests to throw out the case.

The lawsuit, filed by an attorney for Disability Rights Arkansas, an independent agency tasked with protecting and advocating for people with disabilities, contends the high school senior has been diagnosed with severe anxiety and depressive disorder that causes severe panic attacks that interfere with her ability to learn. It says she needs her specially trained dog to accompany her to school to help her ward off attacks or reduce their severity.

A previous principal at the high school told the girl's mother in May that he would approve her request for a service dog in the fall as long as the girl had a Section 504 Plan, according to the lawsuit. Such plans are formulated by a team of school officials, including counselors, for students who are entitled under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to special accommodations to help them manage a disability.

Attorney Jay Bequette of Little Rock said in a response filed Wednesday that after the girl's mother provided information to the district Aug. 2 that she had been diagnosed with "unspecified anxiety and depression disorders," a conference was held to discuss possible accommodations under Section 504. He said the 504 Team, which included the parent and student, district administrators and "professional staff," developed a plan with accommodations that included allowing her to leave class early to avoid crowds, which her mother said trigger her attacks, and allowing her to go to a school nurse or counselor at the onset of anxiety or to step out of a classroom and into the hallway if she becomes anxious.

Bequette noted that the girl and her parent rejected other suggested accommodations such as alerting her to upcoming drills, providing her an alternative location during assemblies and providing her with a smaller, more controlled environment in which to eat lunch. The possibility of allowing the girl to use a service dog wasn't discussed, he said.

It wasn't until Oct. 23, according to the filing, that the mother's request to add to the plan by allowing her daughter to take her dog to school was discussed by the 504 Team, which Bequette said "determined that the accommodation was not necessary at this time."

He wrote, "This determination was reached after concluding that the student was able to fully access the programs, facilities and services offered by the district to the same extent as her non-disabled peers." Also considered, he said, was the girl's "significant achievement as a student," and "the profound lack of material anxiety being manifested" by the girl at school.

Bequette said the district "denies that it has violated the Americans with Disabilities Act or that [the girl] is entitled to an order allowing the student to bring the service animal to school."

He said she has "failed to fully exhaust her administrative remedies, which are outlined in the complaint resolution process in the District's 504 Handbook."

In an attached affidavit, current principal Buck Bing said, "The District's Section 504 Team and I concluded there was no evidence that the student was at risk of engaging in impulsive or destructive behaviors that would ... be prevented or interrupted by a service animal, and that the service animal's presence ... would simply be for the provision of emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship, which falls outside the realm of the ADA and its regulation."

He added, "With only a few rare and extremely isolated exceptions that were relatively minor in nature, the student's anxiety has not manifested itself in the school environment such that it could be routinely or regularly observed by district staff."

Bing also noted that the student in question makes excellent grades, was able to skip a year of school to allow her to graduate a year early, "is extremely well-behaved," complies with rules and regulations for students and is even a member of the high school band, with which she has participated in high school football games attended by thousands of fans, with no apparent problems.

Metro on 12/06/2018

Print Headline: Reject Arkansas student's service-dog suit, filing asks judge

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