When is a dog more than a pet? When it’s 7-year-old Anthony Merchante’s service dog, Stevie. For child advocates and those who fight for the rights of children who suffer illness and need services, Anthony’s case was one of the system preventing the school child from the care only his service dog could bring.
His case ultimately became a federal civil rights case – and a lesson in how rules must be amended to accommodate those with illnesses or needs that don’t fit neatly within the way rules sometimes are drafted.
Anthony, who cannot speak, suffers from cerebral palsy and spastic paralysis. He gets around in a wheelchair, often with Stevie, a 50-pound, Staffordshire terrier, dutifully leashed by his side.
When Anthony lays in bed, Stevie is on alert. He’s been trained to watch for signs that Anthony is about to have a seizure or is having trouble breathing. Stevie barks to alert Anthony’s caregivers or mother of the impending crisis. If Anthony has a seizure, Stevie is trained to climb onto the wheelchair and stabilize Anthony’s head to prevent his windpipe from closing.
Stevie would seem better than most pets. He doesn’t beg and is generally well-behaved. And he’s been trained to behave in public – even in schools.
But the Broward County School Board saw Stevie as a pet, and declined Anthony’s mother, Monica Alboniga, in her requests and appeals to have Stevie join Anthony at Nob Hill Elementary School. The board generally refused to budge. Even when the board was agreeable, they imposed strict limitations, like having independent handlers care for the dog.
In what the family’s lawyer argued was a violation of Anthony’s federal civil rights, they took the board to federal court. This month, U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom ruled against the board. In her ruling, she wrote that the board must allow Anthony to bring Stevie to school.
Even the U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights division sided with Anthony. It wrote last month that the school board “fundamentally misunderstands” the Americans with Disabilities Act, the landmark legislation passed by Congress in 1990, according to news reports. It requires that “public entities generally must permit individuals with disabilities to be accompanied by their service animals.”
“Congress specifically intended that individuals with disabilities not be separated from their service animals, even in schools,” the DOJ wrote, according to news reports.
Chalk up a win for a boy and his dog – and the reasonable expectation that civil rights must be protected and often the best care comes from a caregiver that doesn’t fit into our expected norms.