Airplane passengers have attempted to bring peacocks, squirrels, pigs, and kangaroos aboard for emotional support, but would this fly in public schools? The quick answer is no. Nevertheless, school leaders should be prepared to respond to similar requests. Due to growing anxiety and other mental health concerns, students and staff are asking for increased support. Plus, research validates the many therapeutic benefits of animals, and there is more societal acceptance of animals in public spaces. But how do school leaders distinguish when they must allow animals versus when they may deny requests? This article answers frequently asked questions about the legality of animals in schools.
How do emotional support animals differ from service animals?
Importantly, an emotional support animal is not a service animal. Many people confuse these terms, but per federal law, schools are only required to permit service animals on campus—and only for very specific reasons. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations, service animals must be individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. The disabilities could include “physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disabilities” (28 C.F.R. § 35.104).
In schools, service animals may assist students or employees in a variety of ways. For example, they could alert individuals prior to a seizure, foster greater independence by opening doors, or help individuals transfer to and from the toilet. If the animal’s sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support, then it would not qualify as a service animal (e.g., therapy dogs).
It is possible that a student’s IEP or Section 504 team may determine an animal that does not meet the ADA’s definition of a service animal is permissible (e.g., an emotional support animal) in order to provide a student with a free appropriate public education (FAPE). Conversely, the right to use a service animal is not dependent on the approval of an IEP or Section 504 team.
Is it a legitimate service animal?
The only animals identified as service animals are dogs—and in some special cases, miniature horses (28 C.F.R. § 35.136). In situations when it is not obvious that an animal is a service animal, only two questions may be asked: 1) “Is the animal required because of the person’s disability?” and 2) “What task(s) has the animal been trained to do?” No official certification or documentation is needed; however, the animal must be vaccinated if required by state or local law.
Courts have generally decided that service animals must receive special training to perform tasks related to a person’s disability, but courts have not clarified a specific type or amount of required training. A few courts have determined that a dog could be individually trained at home and still qualify as a service animal, which is consistent with what the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has stated.
What about allergies, fears, and disruption?
The DOJ (2020) has explained that allergies and fears are not legitimate reasons to exclude service animals. However, if the animal is out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control it, or if the animal is not housebroken, then the animal may be excluded. The animal must have a harness, leash, or other tether, unless unfeasible due to the person’s disability.
Many educators are concerned about needing to supervise or take service animals outside to relieve themselves. If a student is unable to be the animal’s sole handler, then school leaders should help with logistics and resources. This may be easier than anticipated (e.g., service animals may be trained to take scheduled bathroom breaks).
The ADA does not require schools to “modify policies, practices, or procedures if it would ‘fundamentally alter’ the nature of the goods, services, programs, or activities provided,” but these situations are rare (Dept. of Justice, 2020).
Students with service animals must not be isolated. Service animals must be permitted to accompany individuals with disabilities into spaces where others are allowed to go (e.g., school bus, cafeteria food line, field trips). If others are fearful/allergic, then identify solutions (e.g., distanced seating). Typically, allergic reactions are prevented because schools are cleaned regularly, and service animals are properly groomed and avoid direct contact with anyone but the handler.
However, if a person is at risk for a significant allergic or fear-induced reaction, then identify reasonable accommodations. Oftentimes, initial concerns are alleviated after students/staff observe that service animals are trained to be nondisruptive and focus on specific tasks.
How have courts ruled?
Courts have decided in favor of students and school employees in service animal disputes. For example, the Third Circuit ruled that a student’s seizure-alert service dog qualified as a necessary and reasonable accommodation, and that the ADA’s service animal regulations are applicable under Section 504 (Berardelli v. Allied Svcs. Inst. of Rehab. Medicine, 2018). In Alboniga v. Sch. Bd. of Broward Co. (2015), a federal district court determined a school could not require a student to provide a handler, liability insurance, or extra vaccinations for his service dog. In a school employee case, a federal district court decided that a paraprofessional who uses a service dog had successfully stated a claim of illegal retaliation after she complained that the district’s service animal policy did not comply with federal law (Donnell v. Rockwood Sch. Corp., 2023).
Are service animals a Section 504 issue?
Although conversations about service animals may arise at IEP meetings, denial of service animals is often a violation of Section 504 instead of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Importantly, Section 504 allows students to be awarded monetary damages and IDEA does not.
Section 504 litigation is increasing, which could be because monetary damages are available or because resolution may be quicker. Parents/students do not need to exhaust administrative remedies under Section 504. In other words, if a school’s denial of a service animal is Section 504 discrimination, then the parties are not required to complete IDEA’s dispute resolution procedures (e.g., mediation, due process hearings).
Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools (2017) is the only U.S. Supreme Court decision involving service animals in schools. The Court clarified that if the school’s denial of the service dog was a Section 504 issue of discrimination instead of a FAPE violation under IDEA, then the parties could bypass IDEA’s exhaustion requirements. In 2023, the Court again distinguished Section 504 from IDEA, determining that a student who was denied educational resources did not need to exhaust administrative remedies because the type of damages he was seeking (compensatory financial damages) are unavailable under IDEA (Perez v. Sturgis Pub. Schs., 2023).
To keep IDEA issues separate from Section 504 concerns, administrators may opt to create a Section 504 plan to accommodate service animals, even if the student already has an IEP.
What about cases involving students with anxiety?
In C.G. v. Saucon Valley School District (2021), the school argued the dog was not a service animal because one of its tasks was to provide emotional support for anxiety. The federal district court disagreed, explaining that the student had psychiatric disabilities and the dog was trained to mitigate these (e.g., cortisol detection, deep pressure therapy). The court distinguished the student’s anxiety disorder as more severe than the type of anxiety that many people occasionally experience and emphasized that the dog was specially trained to assist with disability-related tasks.
ADA regulations discuss psychiatric service dogs’ need to recognize and respond. To qualify as a service dog, they could be trained to detect an anxiety attack and take actions to lessen the impact. However, if the dog’s presence is only to provide comfort and not perform disability-related tasks, it would be outside the ADA’s definition for service animals.
How are OCR complaints and litigation avoided?
It is important to be proactive instead of reactive. Therefore, prepare for the inclusion of service animals by:
- Drafting policies that align with and cross-reference federal and state law (e.g., include state law’s requirements for vaccinations and service-animals-in-training)
- Reviewing Wisch’s (2023) comprehensive list of state service animal laws
- Creating procedures about how to handle requests, logistics, and violations (e.g., identify where the animal will use the bathroom)
- Developing staff/student training to ensure understanding and acceptance of service animals (e.g., explain animals should not be touched)
- Anticipating concerns (e.g., define “under control” and “disruption”)
These preventative measures are necessary considering both the increase of animals in schools and Section 504 complaints and lawsuits.
Marie Kosakowski is the support services coordinator for accessible educational services at Indiana University. Janet R. Decker, JD, PhD, is an associate professor of education at Indiana University and a co-author of Legal Rights of School Leaders, Teachers, and Students.
Alboniga v. Sch. Bd. of Broward Co., 87 F. Supp. 3d 1319 (S.D. Fla. 2015).
Berardelli v. Allied Svcs. Inst. of Rehab. Medicine, 900 F.3d 104 (3d Cir. 2018).
C.G. v. Saucon Valley Sch. Dist. 571 F. Supp. 3d 430 (E.D. Pa., 2021).
Definitions, 28 C.F.R. § 35.104 (2016). ada.gov/law-and-regs/title-ii-2010-regulations/#section-35104-definitions.
Donnell v. Rockwood Sch. Corp., 2023 WL 3072622 (E.D. Mo. April 25, 2023).
Fry v. Napoleon Comm. Schs., 580 U.S. 154 (2017).
Modifications in Policies, Practices, or Procedures, 28 C.F.R. § 36.302 (2016). ada.gov/law-and-regs/title-iii-regulations/#-36302-modifications-in-policies-practices-or-procedures.
Perez v. Sturgis Pub. Schs. 143 S. Ct. 859 (2023).
U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. (2020, Feb. 28). Frequently asked questions about service animals and the ADA. ada.gov/resources/service-animals-faqs
Wisch, R. F. (2023). Table of state service animal laws. Animal Legal & Historical Center. animallaw.info/topic/table-state-assistance-animal-laws