Family of a student with autism challenges Bio-Med over service animal dispute

Bio-Med Science Academy. Ben Wolford/The Portager

A Ravenna family has embarked on a legal battle against Bio-Med Science Academy in Rootstown, alleging the charter school is violating their son’s civil rights.

At issue is the school’s refusal to provide a full-time aid to help their son, a 17-year-old sophomore, to handle his service dog, Greta. Bio-Med officials cite the boy’s stellar grades and (mostly) acceptable behavior as evidence that he doesn’t need an aide.

The Rices say their son’s unpredictable meltdowns and diagnosed anxiety disorder are proof that he does. They point to the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which guarantees children with disabilities a “free appropriate public education” at no cost to the parents.

The Rices’ son is diagnosed with autism, anxiety, ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and premature atrial contraction, a condition in which the top part of his heart beats faster than it should, said the boy’s mother, Yvone Rice.

Since getting Greta in 2019, Rice said her son’s quality of life at home has significantly improved, reducing his meltdowns and anxiety attacks from several times a week to about once a month. At school, the aide would only need to step in if the boy would be unable to handle his own sometimes volatile emotions.

“He’s had a few meltdowns this year, all of which we feel could have been prevented if Greta was with him,” Rice said. “He’s upset many times a day, and it doesn’t seem like there’s any help in that from the school.”

The case hinges on a difficult, often contentious question in public education: To what lengths must school districts go to accommodate the personalized education plans of children who require extra support?

Parents often ask school districts for accommodations that can range from extra time to complete assignments to full-time, one-on-one aides. Other means of support can include short breaks, having assignments broken down into smaller chunks, being provided with class notes, and preferential seating.

Usually, the child’s support team, which includes school officials and the student’s parents, come to an agreement. In the Rice’s case, they didn’t. 

Service animals are considered medical devices by some federal agencies, and schools are required by the ADA to assist students with accessing such devices. An aide, the Rice family says, is a reasonable accommodation, no different than a school employee designated to help a student who needs occasional help with an asthma inhaler, wheelchair or insulin pump, all of which schools regularly allow.

So, like other parents who believe their children haven’t been treated fairly, they headed to court.

But when the Rice family filed suit in federal court in 2020, the judge told them they must first complete a lengthy due process procedure laid out by the ADA as it pertains to schools. They did so, and on May 6 completed a hearing with Bio-Med officials and an impartial hearing officer.

In the days leading up to the hearing, Rice said she fully expects to lose, and expects to lose again at a similar hearing at the state level. However, completing these steps satisfies the judge’s order, and leaves the family free to return to federal court to argue the matter as a civil rights issue, Rice said.

Rice is not worried that her son will likely graduate before the legal wheels grind to a halt. She said the family will continue to fight to recover monetary damages as well as costs related to anything he could have learned had he been able to have Greta by his side.

Several of the boy’s teachers testified during last week’s hearing.

They describe him as a top student who functions well in solo and group activities, and who does not need a one-on-one aide. Having one could at least initially be a distraction to the classroom as a whole, one teacher said. None of the teachers had seen him working with his service dog, and only one of the four, chemistry teacher Catherine Panchyshyn, said she had witnessed him during a meltdown.

Having become upset with a challenging math assignment, Panchyshyn said the student got upset, started crying, and ran to a designated room, where he picked up a chair. School staff helped him calm down, and he returned to the classroom with no further incidents, she said.

A second incident involved the student not responding well to a change in the daily schedule. He reportedly raised his voice and hit a table, then grabbed it in such a way that he could have overturned it. Panchyshyn said she stopped him, redirected him, and he calmed himself down.

All the teachers said the boy may pace in the classroom for a few seconds to a few minutes, or may take short walks in the hallway, both of which are permitted activities written into his individualized education plan.

Bio-Med Superintendent Stephanie Lammlein said all students and teachers have the courtesy of short breaks, where they may leave their assigned areas to regroup and recenter themselves.

Carrie Sinkele, the boy’s engineering teacher and robotics club adviser, said the boy’s father had brought the service dog to robotics competitions, which she described as “organized chaos,” with multiple auditory and visual stimuli, including sirens, music and flashing lights. The student, she said, “was not even near Greta, [but] was very much involved with the competition itself.”

In class, Sinkele said the student is not a distraction, though “he does have outbursts sometimes,” raising his voice in frustration when he does not understand an assignment. His classmates are used to it and disregard the behavior, she said, adding that she typically intervenes and de-escalates the situation.

Relying on reports the teachers had collected as far back as 2019, school administrators said there is no data to support the need to hire a handler for the service dog.

Even so, the school had designated four staff members to help with the service dog if the student was unable to do so, said Charmayne Polen, the chief operating officer for Bio-Med Grades 7-9. (Chief operating officer is the school’s term for principal.) The staff would be able to direct the dog to lie atop the boy when he was having a meltdown, and to give other commands, she said. The parents provided the list of commands and participated in one training session, but did not schedule a second one.

During a break in the proceedings, Rice insisted that group training sessions are ineffective. It could well take up to 60 hours, one on one, for a handler to gain a person’s trust and respond to the person’s request, she said.

School officials suggested that Rice could act as the handler, but Polen said the student’s mother declined to do so.

“With an aide, [he] will gain more independence for himself from us,” Rice explained. “Our whole goal is for him to gain the tools he needs to be more independent. If I’m shadowing him, he’s always going to be turning to me for help.”

As Rice’s son has matured, he has developed greater impulse control and self regulation, Polen said. Regardless of who the aide might be, he simply doesn’t need one, and having one could be detrimental to that goal of independence, Bio-Med Student Services Coordinator Chynna Hale said.

Lindsey McLaughlin, the boy’s current COO, agreed with her colleagues that an aide is “not advisable,” and Lammlein says she understands that the Rices refer to the service dog as a medical device. Her denial of an aide is based on her team’s data and his demonstrated ability to access Bio-Med’s curriculum, she said.

The boy’s father, Ralph Rice, said all this is beside the point. His son’s outbursts or meltdowns are unpredictable, he said, and must be addressed when they occur.

The school aide would take over when, and only when the student, as the primary handler, would be unable to access his service animal. The rest of the time, the aide would be assisting the boy with social skills and anxiety that could, if not addressed in early stages, elevate to the level of a melt-down, Yvone Rice said.

“[My son] needs help utilizing the service dog. If he’s in the middle of a meltdown or an anxiety attack, he needs someone to give the commands for him. Asking him to do it is like asking a sick person to medicate themselves,” she said.

The Rices have offered to save the school the more than $1,000 it would cost for a professional handler to train the aide by doing the training themselves, either at Bio-Med or at their home.

“In order to help [my son], the aide would have to … gain the dog’s trust and be able to give the verbal and nonverbal commands if he is unable to do it himself,” Rice said. 

The boy’s parents intend to seek guardianship of their son as he cannot be expected to handle the responsibilities young adults normally face, Rice said. Once he graduates, they support his desire to try college and will see how that goes. She said he has expressed a desire to become a research chemist.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.