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.

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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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