School districts frequently ask how to balance the rights of a person who brings a service animal onto school grounds against the rights of others. For example, if one child in a classroom is allergic to pet dander, but another child demands to bring her service dog to school, whose rights prevail? These concerns are not limited only to the rights of students but also can easily arise with an employee’s request for accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. In other scenarios, members of the public, including parents or spectators at a sporting event, could also be covered.
A court decision this month out of New York gives one example of conflicting rights of different members of the school community. The parents of a student with asthma and severe allergies filed a wide-ranging lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, arguing that a school district violated their child’s rights by not having a policy prohibiting service animals and by allowing a service animal on the school grounds several times in violation of their child’s 504 plan.
In this case, the parent of a different student required the use of a service animal and brought the animal to multiple school events in which the student with the allergy participated. The student with the allergy had a 504 plan that required the school to, among other things, ensure no animals come within 30 feet of the student, keep the student out of contact with service animals, implement a cleaning protocol after animals are within the school building, and communicate in advance with her parents when a service animal was anticipated to be within the school building.
Additionally, the parents had requested other accommodations that are not discussed in the court decision and had also requested a blanket policy banning service animals from school. The school district rejected the latter request, explaining that it had an obligation under federal disability law to allow service animals within the building.
The court dismissed most of the claims but will allow the disability discrimination claim to proceed. This relates to alleged violations of the 504 plan. The court recognized that the school is required under federal law to allow service animals but noted that this does not excuse a school district from fulfilling its obligations under a 504 plan to protect a student against allergies. This case shows how distinct legal rights can come into direct conflict.
While the public court filings do not provide sufficient detail to determine what, if anything, the school might reasonably have done differently (or even if it did, in fact, violate the student’s rights), one lesson is that in allowing a student, staff member, or school visitor to exercise her right to use a service animal, a school district must consider whether accommodations are necessary to ensure that the rights of students with allergies are protected. This is a difficult balance that will depend very much on the individual facts of each case.
– Doe v. United States, 118 LRP 49416 (S.D.N.Y. 2018).