TRENTON – With the start of a new school year quickly approaching, Senate Majority Leader Steve Sweeney said today that he will introduce legislation this fall guaranteeing that all students with disabilities can bring a professionally-recommended service dog to school with them in order to get the most from their education.
“In addition to being ‘man’s best friend,’ trained dogs can make a major difference in the developmental progress of students with autism spectrum disorders or developmental disabilities,” said Senator Sweeney, D-Gloucester Cumberland and Salem. “This isn’t about giving students permission to bring pets into the classroom, but about giving students with disabilities access to the medically-recommended, results-oriented therapies that will allow them to achieve their potential. We need to make sure that these students have every opportunity to do the best they can in the classroom, and part of that is accommodating their unique therapeutic needs.”
Under Senator Sweeney’s proposed bill, students with autism or other developmental disabilities would be allowed to bring their service dog into the classroom, if the dog had been recommended by a doctor or other medical or developmental professional. The bill would provide the same protections for these students as are already applied to blind students in need of assistance from seeing-eye dogs.
“If a doctor says that a trained service dog could help students overcome their disabilities in the classroom – whatever those disabilities might be – school administrators ought to fully abide by that recommendation,” said Senator Sweeney, whose teenage daughter, Lauren, was born with Down syndrome. “Having a service dog for kids with autism and developmental disabilities is a decision that should stay between parents and their family physicians, and not subject to debate from mid-level school bureaucrats. These are working animals, and the stipulations in this bill should be so obvious as to not even be up for discussion.”
Senator Sweeney noted that he first learned about the issue through an Associated Press article featured on msnbc.com, detailing the red tape many families are struggling with to get their kids access to service dogs in school. According to the article, training dogs to assist individuals with disabilities is not a new trend, but training them specifically to assist children affected by autism or other developmental disabilities is still relatively new. The dogs are trained to provide a calming influence for students, providing a connection to the familiar in unfamiliar surroundings.
Senator Sweeney’s legislation would expand on several recent law suits highlighted in the Associated Press article and pending in other states – including Illinois, California and Pennsylvania – where students’ families have sued local school districts to allow their children to bring their service dogs into the classroom. In two cases in Chicago, elementary school students with autism recently won court orders to allow them to be accompanied by their service dogs in school.
“We must clarify the law regarding medically-recommended service dogs, before New Jersey finds itself facing a similar lawsuit,” said Senator Sweeney. “Medically-recommended service dogs represent a bridge between kids who have historically been separated from their peers by disability. Through this legislation, we are giving kids access to the sort of treatments and therapies which will make a real difference in their lives, and help them unlock their true potential in the classroom.”