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Palm Beach State college student wins battle over service dog for psychological disability

March 3, 2012

By Jane Musgrave, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Getting a service dog changed Kyra Alejandro's life.

Often gripped by inexplicable waves of paralyzing panic, the 27-year-old Loxahatchee woman depends on a nip, a lick or a quick snort from her black Pomeranian to warn her to rein in her emotions before they run away from her.

"Ambrosius can recognize the early stages of an anxiety attack," Alejandro said of her constant companion. "He can tell me, 'You're not doing so well, and I can take care of it.' We're a team."

However, administrators at Palm Beach State College didn't see Ambrosius as a help to Alejandro, who is studying to be a social worker. They saw the 8-pound ball of fur as an unwanted nuisance on campus.

Even though Alejandro produced medical evidence that her service dog, much like ones used by the blind, helps her cope with life, they forbade her from bringing Ambrosius to class.

That decision, after a year of intense legal wrangling, is costing the school nearly $100,000.
In a settlement last month, college officials agreed to pay Alejandro $20,000 and to write a $79,900 check to attorneys who argued that the school's ban violated the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Also, in a concession that Alejandro said was key to her decision to settle the lawsuit, the school agreed to train administrators so they understand laws protecting the disabled and learn why service dogs help people overcome a variety of disabilities, even ones buried deep inside someone's psyche.

"It wasn't about the money. It was all about the training," Alejandro said of the settlement. "I'm thinking about the next young woman or the next young man who has an invisible disability or any kind of disability. To think you would have a school tell a person they couldn't have a service dog. It's like saying you can't have your wheelchair or your cane."

Though they signed the settlement agreement, school officials declined to comment, saying the suit is still pending.

Julia Graff, an attorney specializing in mental health law who represents Alejandro, said the school's harsh stand was surprising.

Administrators had security guards escort Alejandro from class. They brought her up on disciplinary charges. They told her there was no such thing as a psychiatric service dog, only ones for the blind. Then, after she filed suit, they assured a federal judge she would be allowed to bring the dog on campus after all. But when she did, they again had security guards remove her.

"Here we have a college student who's escorted off campus by security guards, and for what? Because she's carrying a small, quiet, well-trained dog," said Graff, who works for the WashingtonŽ-based Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law.

While many people aren't familiar with psychiatric service dogs, most understand their purpose once it's explained to them, Alejandro said.

Instead, the school fought, despite recently beefed-up federal laws that require a public entity, such as a tax-funded school, to accommodate service dogs for the disabled. Service dogs, according to the regulations, are animals trained to help a person deal with "a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental (handicap)."

In court papers, school officials argued that they weren't sure Alejandro's dog had proper training and that she provided conflicting information about how Ambrosius helped her with her disability.

But U.S. District Judge Donald Middlebrooks ruled there was ample evidence that Alejandro suffers from various illnesses, including post-traumatic stress disorder, and that the dog helps her combat their debilitating impacts.

Further, he wrote, the law restricts the types of information college officials can seek. They can't require a person to provide proof of any training a service dog received or require the person to provide medical reports confirming a disability. According to the federal regulations, they can ask two questions: Is the dog required because of a disability? What work has it been trained to do?

"What I found so startling about this was that a state college was denying a student a very simple accommodation that makes such a difference in her life," Graff said.

Even before last month's settlement, Alejandro was allowed back on campus. In November, Middlebrooks granted her request for a temporary injunction, prohibiting the school from ejecting her.

Since June, she has been enrolled at Florida Atlantic University and takes only one class at the college.

Given her experience at Palm Beach State College, she said she was nervous when she sought approval to bring Ambrosius on FAU's Boca Raton campus. But, she said, administrators, professors and students couldn't have been more welcoming.

"At PBSC, I was kind of the person outside the box. At FAU, I'm inside the box. I'm part of it. I'm so happy to be there," she said.

She hopes that as a result of her suit, disabled students with service dogs will feel the same way at the college.

"The No. 1 thing was to change their policy and their prejudices about what a service dog is," she said.

Palm Beach Post

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