In October, a flight from Charlotte to Cleveland was delayed when a woman carrying what she characterized as an emotional support animal refused to deplane from the aircraft. Although the airline permits air travel for emotional support animals, the passenger failed to tell employees that her support animal was a squirrel. The airline does not allow rodents of any kind – including squirrels – aboard their aircraft, so the passenger was asked to deplane prior to takeoff. When the woman refused to deplane, all other passengers were forced to do so until the woman and the squirrel could be removed.

Would an Ohio public school district be required to permit the squirrel to accompany an individual onto school property? The answer to this question is no, because the animal does not meet the definition of a service animal under state or federal law.

Although public school districts are not regulated by the same rules as airlines, they are generally required to permit service animals to accompany individuals with disabilities on school premises and at school-related functions. Emotional support animals may be treated differently, as discussed below. It is important for school district staff to know how state and federal law define the term service animal and also to understand when an animal may and may not accompany an individual.

What is a service animal under the law?

Under federal law, a service animal is defined as a dog that is trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability. Although the definition restricts the meaning of “service animal” to only a dog, federal law also permits a miniature horse to accompany an individual with disabilities under limited circumstances.

To determine whether a miniature horse must be permitted to accompany an individual with a disability, a public entity may consider four factors:

  • The type, size, and weight of the horse and whether the facility can accommodate based on these factors
  • Whether the handler has sufficient control of the horse
  • Whether the horse is housebroken
  • Whether the presence of the horse compromises legitimate safety requirements that are necessary for safe operations

It is important to note that an emotional support animal is not defined as a service animal under federal law. Emotional support animals provide comfort by being with a person rather than being trained to perform a specific task for an individual with a disability. A public entity may therefore not be required to treat an emotional support animal in the same fashion.

Also understand that other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not defined as service animals either.

State laws may also apply to service animals. Ohio further classifies dogs into four groups (R.C. 955.011):

  • Assistance dog – a guide dog, hearing dog, or service dog that has been trained by a nonprofit special agency
  • Guide dog – a dog that has been trained or is in training to assist a blind person
  • Hearing dog – a dog that has been trained or is in training to assist a deaf or hearing-impaired person
  • Service dog – a dog that has been trained or is in training to assist a mobility-impaired person

When may a school district exclude a service animal?

A school district may exclude a service animal in a few circumstances. For instance, if the presence of the animal would require the district to modify policies, practices, or procedures in a way that would “fundamentally alter” the district’s services, programs, or activities, it may be excluded. This is a very high threshold to meet. A district may also be able to exclude animals that present legitimate safety concerns, are not housebroken, or do not remain under effective control of the handler.

What about individuals who might be allergic to the service animal?

A school district is expected to carefully consider the risks to all parties involved, including those with a service animal and those who are allergic to one. A district should thoroughly explore ways to reasonably accommodate the needs of all individuals involved before it considers excluding a service animal because of an allergy.

Can a district restrict the animal’s access to certain areas?

Generally, a service animal must be permitted to accompany an individual in all areas where the public is permitted to go. This includes access to facilities and to all school-sponsored activities and events, even if they occur after hours, unless a legitimate reason for a restriction or exclusion applies (see above).

A school district’s obligation to permit service animals applies not only to students but also to parents and visitors. Generally, public entities must allow individuals with disabilities to be accompanied by service animals in all areas that are open to the public. You should contact your district’s legal counsel if you have questions about service animals in your school facilities and programs.