The Gates-Chili Central School District (GCCSD) has violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), by not allowing eight-year-old Devyn Pereira to bring her service dog to school, according to findings from the US Department of Justice (DOJ), and New York State Education Department (NYSED).
As a result, NYSED has ordered the district to reverse its policy, and pay $25,000 in compensatory damages to the Pereira family, or risk facing a lawsuit if it fails to do so, officials from the organization stated.
The district has two weeks to comply.
“Updating antiquated, sometimes discriminatory policies is no easy task, but my little girl’s story compelled so many people to speak up,” said Devyn’s mother, Heather Pereira.
Pereira said Devyn suffers from a combination of autism disorder and epilepsy, and had been bringing her service dog, Hannah, with her to Neil Armstrong Elementary School in Gates since 2011.
However, in 2012, The Gates-Chili school district prohibited any district staff members or aides from assisting with the animal, and instead required the Pereira family hire a handler for the dog, refusing to cover the cost of the aide.
Consequently, in opposition to the district’s decision, the Pereiras filed a complaint with the DOJ, stating the district had been in violation of the ADA, by not providing Devyn with the support she needed in order to use her service animal at school. In addition, the Pereiras said the dog required minimal handling from school aides, and had been trained to last the entire day without needing to be walked, eat or to relieve herself.
As a result, the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division began its investigation into the matter in August of 2013, while, in the meantime, the Pereiras paid $25,000 for the additional handler to assist with the dog at Devyn’s school.
Following the investigation’s culmination, both the DOJ and NYSED found the district to be in violation of federal law, and ordered the district to allow its staff members to help with the animal, as well as to reimburse the Pereiras for their expenses.
“When an individual makes a service animal choice, the public service agency must ensure that it provides reasonable accommodations for the student to do so,” NYSED stated. “By requiring the parent to arrange for, and pay for a third-party handler, or the individual to assist the student to perform her handler functions in order to attend school with her service animal, the district did not meet its obligation to ensure that the special education services were at no cost to the parent.”
Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle also advocated on Devyn’s behalf, stating, “In New York State, we have made significant advances in education, employment, and civil rights for individuals with disabilities, but we must do more to fulfill the promise of equal access and equal opportunity for all. The decisions of the DOJ and NYSED set a vital precedent which will protect other families facing similar injustices to the Pereiras, now, and in the future.”