Andrew Stevens, a twelve-year-old boy with severe epilepsy, was looking forward to starting 6th grade with his service dog Alaya, until the Fairfax County school district informed Andrew’s parents that the dog would not be allowed to attend school with Andrew.
The reason, as reported by The Washington Post, is three-fold. First, the school believes that their staff can do anything that Alaya can do. Second, the school asserts that according to state guidelines, the dog must have a handler, and that Andrew–who functions cognitively at a kindergarten level–does not fit the criteria. Finally, Alaya was trained by Seizure Alert Dogs For Life, a for-profit organization and not Assistance Dogs International, the nonprofit that the state of Virginia recognizes.
Why is Alaya necessary?
Andrew Stevens has a severe form of epilepsy known as Lennox-Gastaut syndrome that is not controllable with medication. Alaya is able to detect some of Andrew’s seizures before they happen and comfort him. Others she responds to within 5 seconds, swiping a magnet in her collar over an implant in Andrew’s chest that sends an electrical impulse to his brain to shorten the seizures. A teacher can take as long as 30-45 seconds to respond from the front of the classroom.
Alaya can also help cushion the fall if Andrew has a seizure while standing or walking. In addition to Alaya, Andrew wears a helmet constantly to lessen the risk of hitting his head. If a seizure lasts too long, Alaya will bite down on a cell phone on Andrew’s belt, which will alert 911. It’s clear that the dog brings Andrew a great deal of comfort. He told Matt Lauer “I love Alaya forever.“
Until Andrew’s family can reach a deal with the school district, Andrew is being homeschooled. His mother says that because of the severity of his epilepsy, doctors have told them that Andrew may not live past his teen years. The Stevens family has not given up. They have contacted school officials and are planning to use the Americans With Disabilities Act to defend their son’s right to have Alaya in school with him.
In 2008, a St. Paul family sued their school district for denying their son’s autism service dog to attend school with the child.
In 2009, the family of Kaleb Drew sued their Chicago school district and won. Six-year-old Kaleb was able to start school that year with Chewey, his autism service dog. One of Chewey’s many functions is to stop Kaleb from running into traffic at pickup time, something that his parents say he is prone to do.
In November of 2010, a Florida family sued for the right to bring their son’s service dog to school. The little boy, six-year-old JC Bowen, has both autism and epilepsy and was prone to running in fear after he came out of a seizure. J.C.’s dog can also help him with his spatial issues and will stop him from crashing into things.
As of Tuesday, Andrew began a two-week trial with Alaya at his Elementary School, reports The Washington Post. Apparently the agreement was reached after Andrew’s father, Army Sgt. Angelo Stevens, agreed to acompany Andrew as Alaya’s handler. Sgt. Stevens has taken two weeks off from his Army job to act as Alaya’s handler. Sgt. Stevens feels confident that the two week trial will show administrators that Alaya is impeccably trained and that Andrew is capable of handling the dog. As Sgt. Stevens told The Washington Post, “The main process here is to show that Andrew can handle the dog. Andrew will pass with flying colors.”
It is wonderful that Andrew will be able to attend school with both Alaya and his father by his side, but it begs the question, should someone who works in Army Intelligence have to take time off so that his child can have a service dog and attend school safely?
Photo thanks to Pete Markham via flickr