Judge orders Villa Grove to allow student's service dog

Judge orders Villa Grove to allow student's service dog

VILLA GROVE – A Douglas County judge has issued a temporary restraining order requiring the Villa Grove school district to allow a 6-year-old boy to bring his service dog with him to attend summer school classes.

On July 9, Nichelle and Bradley Drew of Villa Grove filed suit in circuit court to require the school to allow the dog, a yellow Labrador retriever named Chewey, to accompany their son, Kaleb, to school.

The Drews' attorney, Margie Wakelin, said Kaleb suffers from autism and needs a service dog to protect him from harm, go to school with him, sleep beside him every night, calm him and serve as a bridge between him and other people.

Autism is a developmental disability that often appears in early childhood and impairs the ability to communicate and interact with others.

Chewey received two years of training at Autism Service Dogs of America, and the Drew family and friends held fundraisers– including a poker run, dinner, auction and concert– to get the $13,500 needed to pay for the dog.

The service animal arrived at the Drew home in March.

"Chewey is more than Kaleb's best friend," said Barbara Sandler of Equip for Equality, a federally funded advocacy organization that serves disabled people in Illinois. "The Labrador retriever is his lifeline and guardian angel."

But Wakelin said the school district has resisted attempts to allow the boy to bring Chewey with him.

According to Wakelin, Villa Grove Elementary Principal Marke Hatfield told Nichelle Drew on May 13 that he would call the police if she brought the service animal to the school.

On May 22, the school district sent the Drews a letter telling them they would not allow Kaleb to bring Chewey with him to school.

"He could not attend school for the final three days of classes in May because the district denied access to him with his service animal," Wakelin said.

Kaleb was scheduled to attend summer-school classes this summer, but Wakelin said the district told the family on June 29 that the boy could not bring the dog.

So Wakelin filed suit against the Villa Grove school board and Superintendent Steven Poznic on July 9, asking the court to require the district to allow the service dog.

"The Illinois school code requires service dogs must be permitted to accompany disabled students at all school functions, both in and out of the classroom," Wakelin said.

Mary Fergus, a spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education, confirmed that the state code includes autism as a disability for which schools must allow service dogs to accompany affected students.

"The Illinois Individuals with Disabilities Education Act identifies 13 disabilities, and autism is the first one listed," Fergus said.

Alejandro Miyar, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice, told The News-Gazette that the Americans With Disabilities Act requires public schools to allow service dogs to accompany the children they serve to class.

"There is no doubt that service dogs for autistic children are covered under the Americans With Disabilities Act," Miyar said.

On Tuesday, Douglas County Circuit Judge Chris Freese issued a 10-day restraining order prohibiting the school district from preventing Kaleb from attending classes with Chewey, and Kaleb returned to summer school with the service dog on Wednesday.

Freese has scheduled a preliminary injunction hearing on the issue for July 28.

Both Poznic and Villa Grove school board President Steve Douglas had no comment on the issue.

"We'll let this thing run its course," Douglas said.

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