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Teacher’s Allergy Forces Girl With Autism To Change Schools

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A first-grader with autism who uses a service dog and a special-education teacher who is allergic to dogs are the focus of a dispute in the Athens school district in southeastern Ohio.

Charla Gretz said the special-education director pulled her aside on the first day of school and told her that 6-year-old Shyanna Gretz and her black Labrador retriever, Spring, could not attend Morrison-Gordon Elementary School as planned.

That’s because the special-education teacher assigned to teach Shyanna is severely allergic to dog dander.

Instead, Gretz was told, her daughter and the dog must transfer to East Elementary School, where an allergy-free special-education teacher will instruct Shyanna using the customized learning plan developed for the girl.

That’s unacceptable to Gretz, who asked why a different teacher could not be assigned rather than make her daughter change schools. Morrison-Gordon is a 15- to 20-minute bus ride for her daughter, and riding to East would double the time, she said.

“She does not do well with buses,” Gretz said.

Shyanna’s autism includes being overwhelmed by sensory issues and not coping well with change, and a longer bus ride and switching schools would exacerbate both, she said.

Superintendent Carl D. Martin said Spring is welcome in the district of about 2,800 students, where about 20 percent have an identified disability, he said.

However, the accommodations made for Shyanna and her dog must be balanced against the rights of the allergic teacher, and moving the student to a different school is a reasonable solution, Martin said.

He also disputed the time that Gretz gave for the bus ride. The elementary schools are 5 miles apart, and Shyanna would not spend significantly more time on the bus, he said.

Spring is trained to calm Shyanna and to walk on a tether attached to Shyanna so the girl cannot wander.

The issue of service dogs and classroom allergies has surfaced nationally, said Sara Clark, an attorney with the Ohio School Boards Association. Neither she nor an Ohio Department of Education spokesman knew of other cases in Ohio.

Federal law is clear that schools cannot turn away a student using a service dog because a teacher or another student is allergic, Clark said. The recommended solution is to put the student with the service dog and the student or teacher with the allergy in different classrooms, she said.

There is a legal obligation to accommodate both, Clark said.

Smaller districts such as Athens, with fewer special-education teachers and fewer classrooms than larger districts, might have to be more creative. “Coming up with an accommodation might be more difficult, but that’s not to say that you can’t do it,” she said.

In the Athens district, about 75 miles southeast of Columbus, neither side is budging so far.

Rather than send their daughter to the other elementary, Gretz, 27, and her husband plan to keep Shyanna at home for now, and use online courses for instruction.

They also plan to press their case to the school board, she said.

© 2013 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)
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Comments (35 Responses)

  1. Linda says:

    When we expect a district to work with us, I think we also need to be ready to work with them. Sadly, this is just the type of situation that districts use to make parents look unreasonable. We need to fight for those things that are vital and important, but fighting over a few miles will only undermine their stance in the future, making any difference seem petty.

  2. Ericwi says:

    Reasonable accommodation is easy on paper. If the school seems it reasonable for the student to change schools it is equally reasonable for the teacher to change schools.

  3. Carol says:

    I am severely allergic as well. To have an animal around for more than a few minutes feels like millions pins are sticking into me, not to mention the difficulty breathing, so in this case I have to go with the teacher. The child may have difficulty for a few minutes riding to the other school, but the teacher will be feeling this for hours or days.

  4. MsAmericanPatriot says:

    Couldn’t they train a miniature horse to do the same thing? Most girls like horses.

  5. Whitney says:

    I am on fence on this one. Allergies are complex issue but I am going say this unless the teacher allergy severe where she cannot be in the same school with a dog switching teachers might be better solution. I seen guide dogs in public places like malls and buses where leading the blind. If the teacher has severe allergy like nuts where some kids can’t be in same building makes me wonder if she in the wrong profession. Special Ed deals with disabilities what next kid with seeing eye dog. Is the school will ask the kid parent to be transferred to a school. You are public place where service dogs can come up and help the people who need them. It seems to me this is more of excuse than anything else to get rid of a kid with autism. The dog is going be an issue where ever this teacher goes. Accomadating the teacher is having a kid in another class room with another teacher. I never heard such a severe allergy occurs in animals other than touching a dog or cat. I am not saying they don’t occur but just never heard of it.

  6. Sue Keller says:

    Pretty simple. Switch the teachers. The child with a disability has the right to be in the school closest to her home. Check IDEA. An allergy to dog dander is not a disability. The teacher does not have standing in this issue. The parents need a lawyer.

  7. Laurie says:

    It seems to me that if this is this child’s home school, then she should be able to attend there with the supplemental support (i.e. service dog) she needs to do so. If anything, it is the teacher who should be reassigned as she doesn’t have a home school. A child needs to go to school with the children in her neighborhood and go through school with them. In this case, this could be for six years and then the child has not attended school with her neighborhood peers. This teachers’s disability should not outweigh the child’s. Certainly, a number of children in special education may need a service dog. If another child in that class needs one to allow him/her to function in school, should they move him/her, too? It would be more appropriate in my mind to reassign the teacher with allergies. We are working to allow the child to attend her home school with appropriate accommodations and supports that will allow her to do that.

  8. jackie says:

    my heart goes out to those with allergies that can never know the unconditional love of an animal companion. i do agree with Laurie- going through grammar school with the same kids can only be a good thing for someone with aversion to change, through no fault of her own. the problem with transferring the teacher is that the same problem might occur over & over again- making her/him always the new kid on the block at work- oh well, good luck to all involved- i also agree that an allergy is not a disability.

  9. Pete says:

    The issue is the rights of the child vs the rights of the employee. A student with disabilities with autism should not have to switch schools. They need the social skills to interact with her fellow students, make friends and build relationships. Switching schools when the district pleases, would cause more harm and delay for their development. The teacher can be switched to another grade in the district. The parents should contact their local US Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights for assistance. Districts always side on the teacher’s union rights, instead of what is better for the student.

  10. Rachel says:

    I feel for both parties, but as a parent of a child with special needs and an educator, I have to go with the school on this one. If it was another student with allergies, there would be no discussion. There is no precedent for having a dog-allergy free room, and there ARE other means of accommodation. I would not subject my dog allergic child to being in the situation. The teacher set her whole classroom up, put time in forming a team with other professionals in the school, etc. why should she leave? My son also happens to have autism and I realized long ago that I can’t sanitize the world for him. She has trouble with the bus? Well she’s got about 15 more years of bus riding, so are you going to save her from EVERY challenging issue she has? That is not going to be an easy kid to live with, or an easy kid to place when the time comes and her parents aren’t around. I certainly don’t put my child into challenges on purpose, but we have worked hard for the past eight years to help him become more comfortable with situations that used to be difficult. We can now go to a busy pool, the grocery store, parks, museums, play grounds, etc. with much more ease than we used to. The teacher has rights too.

  11. holly says:

    Its pretty hopeless. schools teach discrimination as well as churches do. If a school is that stupid where they can’t just switch teachers it just hopeless. They really don’t care.

  12. Lynne says:

    What kind of allergy? A few sniffles that medication will control or something genuinely serious. I’m so tired of people making huge fusses about minor allergies, but of course we don’t know from the information provided. (Think about all the people who are allergic to their own pets!)

  13. James says:

    My comment is a pretty simple argument. I am a current licensed special education teacher. If it were me, I would offer to leave the school, or change to a different school. Given the unique case of this child, it is apparent the transition with a longer bus ride, and more stimulation would be a harder thing to transition to for the child, then a simple move to a different elementary for the teacher.

    I have seen it enough to know not every student with a disability is carefully thought of from the administrative perspective. To them its more about numbers and money. This is my personal bias though.

  14. Deb Angel says:

    Is it a true that the appropriate response is to relocate the teacher? As a Red Cross Shelter Manager, we are instructed to accommodate the person with the service dog and the person with the allergy or the fear would need to be relocated.

  15. Debra Bell says:

    I’m sorry, wouldn’t it be less stressful to change the teacher to another class rather than upturn this girls routine and cause problems for her and her family? These kids need sameness, the familiar and to feel safe.

  16. Barbara Weaver says:

    I’m sorry, but I feel that sometimes things don’t work out in the way we plan them. You basically want this teacher to be removed and replaced because you don’t want to add five miles to your daughter’s trip, morning and afternoon. That does not seem reasonable to me. If the school had several teachers who would be able to adequately teach your daughter, you would perhaps have a case. But get over yourselves. Your daughter’s “needs” do not surpass the needs of the other children who the teacher may already have a close relationship with. And by being stubborn and determined to have your own way, you prove only that you are so inflexible that the school district will never be able to satisfy you, anyway. Go ahead. Home school her.

  17. Barbara Weaver says:

    You’ll notice that I am not on the fence. I have a stepson who had special needs, and my girlfriend from 3rd to 10th grade had cerebral palsy and was the first special needs person to be allowed in a public school in our district, in 1954. I have volunteered in the resource room, and I know there is a very special bond that you always hope to see between a teacher and a special needs student. Some of the children this teacher will be teaching are likely ones she had last year, as well. And many of her students will already have a bond with her. Additionally, the teacher likely has a bond within the school that helps her to reach out to the individual students. The upheaval these parents are asking for is unreasonable. The child will soon deal acceptably with the extra five miles. And honestly, she isn’t the only one in the family that needs to learn the importance of being flexible.

  18. Gabrielle says:

    I can see it from both sides. The teacher needs to be in a room where her severe allergy will not impede her ability to teach. The child needs to be in a classroom where she can be taught. Maybe that particular school is not large enough to have more than one special ed teacher available. We don’t know the entire situation.

  19. Jim Shirey says:

    My understanding of IDEA is that the school is required to provide services, but not in a specific school building, or even in a specific school district for that matter. Athens City Schools has many students from neighboring districts who come to us for special needs instruction. The solution offered by the school district is creative, simple and elegant. It accommodates the student without disrupting the needs of other special needs students.

  20. Irene says:

    This could be a lame excuse from a teacher not willing to accept a special needs student with a special dog in the classeoom. I had a teacher who came to my high school classroom once years ago. He was upset upon learning that a deaf student had signed up for his Advanced Math class. He was furious because he did not want to be burdened with a disabled student in class. Some regular program teachers that have a deaf student(s) in the classroom give sign language interpreters “tutoring” responsibilities. This is not the interpreter’s job description!

  21. Dana says:

    So what happens when the students of the teacher come to school that have a dog at home? Are the families supposed to remove the dog from their home just because the teacher is allergic? I think not ! The teacher needs to move to another school plain and simple. I have a friend who is highly allergic to cats, her throat closes up and she can’t breath without her inhaler or other medication. I know that the co-workers have cats and bring cat hair and or dander to work, if you have a cat it is unavoidable so are these co-workers supposed to get rid of their cats JUST to accommodate my friend……NO !

  22. Dennis Burgess says:

    I am not sure how I feel about this particular situation but I have significant cerebral palsy and I do agree with the people who say the child needs to learn how to cope with different environments. Persons `with disabilities cannot always have everything perfect to meet their needs. this child will one day grow up and she will have to adapt to stressful situations or live in an institution.

  23. Callista says:

    Here’s the trouble with asking the girl to “get used to a longer bus ride”: She probably can’t get used to it–just like someone with breathing difficulties would probably not be able to get used to walking up five flights of stairs, and might be injured if he tried.

    The difference between 20 minutes and 40 minutes on a bus is the difference between mild stress that can be defused once she gets in a quiet classroom, and a meltdown or shutdown that can take out her entire day. That means she falls behind on her schooling, and learns to associate school with unpleasantness. It will also stress out the bus driver and all the other students on the bus, some of whom may also be autistic.

    I’m autistic, and in college, and on my own, and I’ve had this bus problem. Before I moved close enough to school to walk there, I had to ride a bus for about ninety minutes. By the end of the ride I was often rocking or thumping my head against the window. I often staggered out of the bus and lay on my apartment floor for an hour, with my cat nudging me and trying to make me get up. And I wasn’t the only one; an autistic man I shared the bus with would completely shut down the entire trip, becoming basically unresponsive. That’s how overwhelming a bus can be for me–and I am living independently and going to college. When I was six years old, it would have been literally torture.

    If she’s forced into a longer bus ride and she can’t cope, she’ll grow too stressed to learn. In autistic people, when stress can’t be managed, there are problems with depression, self-injury, burnout, even loss of skills. She’s six years old. School should not be torture.

    Yes, the teacher has rights, too. Moving the teacher to a school that will mean a longer commute will be stressful for the teacher, too, and it would mean breaking the bond between the teacher and the other students, just like it means the girl has to leave any friends she may have made.

    The teacher can’t be exposed to the girl’s service dog; the girl can’t be exposed to the longer bus ride. A solution has to be found that will fulfill both of those needs.

    I wonder how much notice the school had about Shyanna’s service dog. If they had tried to make some sort of arrangement beforehand, this wouldn’t have been a problem.

    Since Shyanna is studying at home for now, that does give the school some time to work things out. They could hire another teacher for Shyanna, splitting the special ed class into two smaller classes. They could wait until year’s end and swap teachers with a nearby school. They could, if Shyanna benefits from home-schooling, arrange for her education that way.

    Wanting an allergy-free classroom is reasonable. So is needing to go to the nearest school if you are autistic and the bus ride causes overload. This is a situation where everybody needs to be accommodated somehow and they are just going to have to figure something out, because neither person can be expected to give in.

  24. Whitney says:

    It is a public job that the special education teacher is in. It means you will run into service dogs eventually. I am sure there is only one in the school but if you have severe allergies you might be in the wrong profession. You have to aware of other people rights too. It is a tough one.

  25. Cyndi says:

    I am surprised that nearly everyone is taking one side or another. This is not a situation with sides. There are two disabilities here (yes, a *severe* allergy is a disability because it affects your ability to function in everyday situations). Both disabilities deserve accommodation. Both disabilities are legally required to be accommodated.

    The ideal solution would be to put the child in a different class at the same school. But it sounds like that is not possible. Either because the classes do rotations/shared activities or because there is no other class.

    No solution is going to be perfect. Sometimes accommodations are easy and sometimes they require sacrifice. Both my daughter and I have disabilities and believe me I’ve fought with her school many a time. Sometimes the district has been unreasonable, so I pushed it, and sometimes we do the compromising.

    If the child is already on a bus for 20 mins, this is not her local school. If she has to take a longer bus ride, that is unfortunate, but it falls under the category of compromise. If I were the parents, my next step would be to sit down with the bus scheduler and try to create an easier and shorter ride.

  26. John says:

    The big difference will come when each schools financial ability to administer the training is closely scrutinized. Yes, there’s only 5 miles difference in the schools, but at which school is the child placed at the greatest advantage? That’s a question that’ll come down to budgets at the schools themselves, and a question for the courts to decide. We cannot do what we want to do just because we want to do it, i.e. not place the child at the first school where there was no un-allergic teacher available, when public DOE funds are accepted by the school district. That is unacceptable.

  27. John says:

    S. Keller

    You’re spot on!

  28. Whitney says:

    Cyndi, that is the rub. There is no perfect solution. As for sensory issue I take you never drown in the sea of noise and smells that accompanies with autistics but it is same with dog hair dandruff for the teacher. If a 20 minute ride might as well 200 mile ride on the bus. Continual torture if a sensory issue where there is no off switch. It would scare the children to death. If teacher can be moved to another school or classroom it is so much simpler. It is not realistic to ask a child who having change in the routine and dealing sensory issues to accomadate by going to another school. It is virtually impossible to make environment completely allergen free and noise control environment. I am not sure where the middle ground is here. Also we are not getting a full story here.

  29. Verlene says:

    My son and his service dog had the same problem in Colorado. A teacher in the school, not even a teacher my son had, complained that his service dog was increasing her allergies. The teacher refused to change schools and so did we. The principal kicked his dog out of school. We attempted to go as high as the Superintendent with the problem, but he basically ignored us. We even tried mediation with the school district, but that was just a waste of time. Our last resort was an Office of Civil Rights complaint, which we won! Keep fighting! Our children need the special tools that we find to help them, whatever those tools may be. Children with autism need as much stability as possible, so moving her would cause way more problems than moving the teacher or changing teachers. Also, all through school, my son had various kids with allergies in the same class with he and his dog. Those kids knew not to pet the dog and there were no problems.

  30. mariecamp says:

    I would ask for medical documentation from the teachers doctors. I suffer from numerous allergies and take medication. Does this school only have one sp.ed. teacher. I find that truly strange. I hope this works out for the best.

  31. Rachel says:

    Good comment Barbara Weaver! Someone posted that this teacher needed to give medical documentation regarding her allergies…how about documentation that the child has no other sensory strategies than the dog? The parents, if they are truly worried about the bus ride, can also drive her to and from school. I also heard it insinuated that the teacher didn’t want to have a special needs child in her class…um, she’s a special education teacher….. how do you say that she chose the wrong profession – what the heck would allergies have to do with choosing a profession where you, in 99.9 percent of the cases, can expect to not encounter animals where you work. I also love that people are minimizing her allergies; if someone were to try to minimize the sensory difficulites that a child on the spectrum has, there might jus be a riot. if it were another special needs child who was allergic, who grumps who in that situation. Look, in terms of sensory strategies, there should be more than one strategy that is used. I just think that flexibility is key. I don’t assume that my special needs child’s rights supersede all other people’s rights. Equality means equal effort on all parts, shared responsibility. I’m not about to get on the bandwagon because I have a commonality with this family.

  32. Annee says:

    I certainly understand the problems associated with autism; my grandson is autistic. While I do believe that reasonable accommodations must be made for disabilities, I am concerned about the extension of “service dogs” to an ever expanding list of disabilities. Who wouldn’t feel “better” having their favorite pet buddy with them? Because this whole thing could be a contrived service, and not only the teacher’s allergies, but those of other children (like peanuts), and the potential for children who are terrified of dogs, I fail to understand why these parents would not try to be accommodating themselves. Showing insensitivity to others is hardly the way to encourage sensitivity to your own situation.

  33. Callista says:

    Annee, an autism service dog is not a “favorite pet buddy”; it’s a highly trained animal. Autism service dogs can be trained to provide pressure to a handler who is in overload by leaning against them or lying across them; they can be trained to nudge their handler out of a shutdown. They can prevent their handlers from walking into a busy road–autistics may not be able to process quickly enough to understand the danger, or may not be aware of danger in the first place. For those who tend to “bolt” when panicked, a dog can be trained to brace against the handler and get them to stay put instead of running somewhere and getting hurt or lost. Some autistics also find it easier to communicate when in contact with an animal. A service dog can actually replace an aide in many cases.

    The sort of thing you are talking about–a buddy for a disabled child–would probably be an emotional support animal. These are not service dogs and do not go into buildings where no pets are allowed, but there is an exception for them in most housing arrangements, so that a family living in an apartment that does not allow pets can have a dog as a companion for their autistic child, provided they paid for any dog-related damage. Shyanna’s dog is not an ESA, though; he’s a fully trained service dog, and is legally allowed to go to school with her.

  34. amelia says:

    um…what kind of person with a dog allergy decides to become a special ed teacher? there are so many special needs students that have service dogs that now will not be able to go to this school.

    this whole thing smells fishy and is probably just a cover for the admins to get the girl from coming to their school

  35. Cyndi says:

    Well, I used to be a special ed teacher, so I’m quite familiar with much of what people are describing. Please people, just STOP pitting one side against another. As a person with disabilities myself (I’m chemically sensitive, I simply can’t be around certain products) I can’t tell you how offensive some of these comments are towards this teacher. Both the child and the teacher have medical needs and disabilities that require accommodation. Both deserve accommodation and support. You do not have to put down the teacher to support the child (or vice versa). I don’t know any of the people involved or the school, so any potential solutions I might offer are speculative (as are any that any of you might offer, unless you are directly connected to the school).

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