Opinion Jun 22, 2017
by Luisa D’Amato
Waterloo Region Record
Is a school a public place?
It’s a simple question, but you could answer it either way.
This is what is at the heart of an Ontario Human Rights Commission hearing in Waterloo that will decide if a boy with autism has the right to have his service dog in the classroom with him.
Final arguments concluded Wednesday at the tribunal, which pits Craig and Amy Fee, parents of nine-year-old Kenner, against the Waterloo Catholic District School Board.
In a case that has commanded national attention, Kenner’s parents appealed to the commission after the school board said Kenner could not have his service dog with him in his classroom at St. Kateri Catholic Elementary School in Kitchener.
His family says the dog, a black Labrador named Ivy, helps Kenner manage anxiety.
Without Ivy, Kenner has displayed increasing difficulties at school. His increasingly severe “meltdowns” and other problems have been discussed in detail. He no longer attends full-time, and has experienced “serious adverse effects” including thoughts of suicide, said the Fees’ lawyer, Laura McKeen.
Human rights legislation and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act affirm that people have the right to bring service animals with them into restaurants, shopping malls and other public places.
You would think that a school is an even more public place than a store. After all, it’s funded by public money. And schools have the public’s trust in their vital job of educating future generations.
As McKeen pointed out, “Kenner is required by law to go to school.”
But there is another way to think about all this.
“The school is not a public place,” countered the board’s lawyer, Nadya Tymochenko. “The classrooms in a school are not publicly accessible.”
The school has the right to deny access if there are concerns about safety, she said. The board has to consider the needs of others, who may have a phobic reaction to dogs, or severe allergies.
Tymochenko also said there isn’t any scholarly evidence that the use of autism service dogs in schools is effective.
The fact that Kenner feels better when he is near his dog could be because Ivy is home, where he feels more comfortable anyway.
Schools must provide disabled students with access to the curriculum, including extra help such as an education assistant. But it isn’t up to the parents to decide what those modifications should be, Tymochenko said.
“We are responsible for accommodating Kenner and providing for his development,” she said.
“Given that we have this responsibility, we also have the right to determine how to exercise this responsibility.
“Schools are not a place for public access. It would be impossible for a school to do its job if we couldn’t control who comes in and out of the school building.”
Over the past few months, there have been dozens of hours of testimony and many thick binders of information shared. Yet two completely different interpretations have developed from the information. The adjudicator’s decision will be announced later this year.
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