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Thursday, July 23, 2009 04:09 pm

School bars autistic child and his service dog

Superintendent:%u2008“We can’t just focus on one student.”

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Kaleb Drew and Chewey, his service dog.
PHOTO COURTESY OF NICHELLE DREW

Small miracles have come true since Chewey moved in with the Drew family.

Six-year-old Kaleb Drew has autism, a developmental disability that affects social, emotional and communication skills. He was only sleeping three hours each night until Chewey, a nearly 2-year-old yellow Labrador retriever, climbed into bed with him. The dog lies “longways” against Kaleb, applying extra pressure so the boy feels secure and comforted.

“Kaleb is sleeping through the night,” Nichelle Drew, a veterinarian turned stay-at-home-mom, says. “He is sleeping so much better, so his focus is much better.”

With more focus and with Chewey at his side, Kaleb can actually sit at a desk or a table, working on practice papers or looking at a book, for more than an hour — a huge task for a child with autism, his mom says.

Nichelle and her husband Brad have watched Chewey instill these benefits and more in Kaleb since they brought him from Autism Service Dogs of America to their Villa Grove home, near Champaign, in May. Starting at six weeks old, Chewey was trained by the Oregon-based nonprofit organization to accompany his child at all times and to help increase the child’s mobility and stability, serve as a link to their school and community and provide them with a sense of security.

That’s why it was such a shock, Nichelle says, when Villa Grove Elementary School refused to let Kaleb finish the final three days of his kindergarten year with Chewey. The school also barred the pair from starting Kaleb’s extended school year program on July 1. (Kaleb’s individualized education program, which directs his special education and related services as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, determined that he needed the summer program to maintain his academic and functional skills).

“What I was told was that they thought they were providing him with everything he needed at school in order to be successful,” Nichelle says. “They didn’t feel that they needed to [do this].” As a kindergartner, Kaleb was in a general education class, but also worked with a one-on-one aide, a special education teacher and a speech therapist.

Margie Wakelin, a staff attorney for Equip for Equality, a nonprofit organization that advances the human and civil rights of people with disabilities in Illinois, says denying Kaleb, a student with autism, and Chewey from school is a clear violation of the Illinois School Code. The law states that, “service animals such as guide dogs, signal dogs or any other animal individually trained to perform tasks for the benefit of a student with a disability shall be permitted to accompany that student at all school functions, whether in or outside the classroom.” The Americans with Disabilities Act additionally supports Chewey’s presence at Villa Grove, providing that there are no public exceptions to where a service dog is allowed.

“Kaleb, for all activities, is accompanied by Chewey,” Wakelin says. “If Chewey is not allowed to attend school, then Kaleb can’t attend school.”

On July 9 the Drews filed a complaint against the Villa Grove Community Unit School District #302 Board of Education and superintendent Dr. Steven Poznic and requested a temporary restraining order to allow Kaleb to attend school with Chewey.

The Drews and Chewey recently went on a family vacation in Colorado.
PHOTO COURTESY OF NICHELLE DREW

On July 14 a Douglas County circuit judge granted the Drews the 10-day restraining order. Kaleb and Chewey were permitted to go to Kaleb’s 45-minute summer class the next day; a preliminary injunction hearing is set for July 28 to determine if the pair can participate in the program until its end on Aug. 19. A final trial will decide if Kaleb can attend all school functions with Chewey and will request that the school district provide Kaleb with compensatory education and services for the classes he missed.

The district’s position, Poznic told Illinois Times, is that they’re “not convinced that the dog is considered a service animal.” The district protects the safety and well-being of all of its students, he says, and has gathered information indicating that Chewey could detract from the entire classroom’s education.

“We can’t just focus on one student and let that be the entire focus of our attention,” Poznic says.

Kaleb’s parents began researching autism service animals in January 2008 and informed Villa Grove the following May about their decision to begin the application process with ASDA. They were approved in June and worked with their community to raise the $13,500 needed to obtain Chewey. When they requested a meeting last November to revise Kaleb’s education program to include a service animal, the school district denied their request.

“Once we had sent in all of the money for Chewey and we knew we were going to be getting him, and we had set up the trip to Oregon, that’s when the school said they didn’t feel that Kaleb needed the service dog at school,” Nichelle says.

This past April the Drews sent a letter to the district asking that members reconsider their decision and requesting that Villa Grove allow the ASDA trainer to attend school with Kaleb and Chewey on May 26-28 to ease the pair’s transition.

The Drews brought Chewey home in May; the school district reaffirmed its decision that the service dog was not allowed on school grounds. Equip for Equality and the Drews decided to pursue court action after the ASDA trainer flew from Oregon, but was also denied access to Villa Grove.

“The harm we saw in front of us made us go for immediate court action,” Wakelin says. “We already have the law — we’re trying to get the law enforced.”

Chewey has opened the door for Kaleb, Nichelle says. Their family recently went to the St. Louis Zoo and to Grant’s Farm, as well as on vacation to Colorado. Kaleb, previously known for bolting from his parents, was attached to Chewey by a six-foot tether that wraps around his waist like a belt. He can also hold on to a handle on the top of the service dog’s vest. Chewey keeps Kaleb safe, Nichelle says, but gives him the space he needs, too.

Chewey’s presence has also made it easier for Kaleb to transition from one place to another, like from home to the store, calm down during tantrums and communicate with his family. He recently walked into the kitchen and told his sisters: “Kelsey, Kaitlyn, come outside and play with me.” Before, he hardly ever used their names or full sentences.

“He seems so much more secure and more grounded than he ever has before,” Nichelle says. “He seems to be handling things so much better, and in turn, we’re seeing new feats come out of him.”

As far as Nichelle knows, Villa Grove is the first public school in the country to bar a service dog from ASDA. She hopes that Kaleb and Chewey get the final OK to attend school as a team.

“It’s so important for Kaleb and Chewey to be together 24 hours a day,” Nichelle says. “They both need to know that they are each other’s constant. They’ve grown so close, so fast. I hate to see that ruined.”

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