Student with service dog to attend Vandergrift school

| Sunday, Jan. 3, 2010

A diabetic boy denied permission to take a service dog to Allegheny/Hyde Park Elementary School has enrolled in a Vandergrift parochial school.

Rowan Alexander, 6, of Washington Township, begins classes Monday at Cardinal Maida Academy.

Despite the controversy that prompted his family to remove him from Kiski Area School District, Rowan will not be taking a service dog with him to Cardinal Maida, at least not initially.

William Alexander, the boy's father, said Leslie, the 2-year-old German shepherd working with Rowan, developed health problems and had to be returned to the Texas agency that placed her with the family.

Alexander said his family is on a waiting list for a replacement dog, and that it might take more than a year for one to become available.

When a new dog with the ability to detect a drop or spike in blood-sugar levels becomes available, the family will approach Cardinal Maida officials about sending it to school with Rowan, Alexander said.

"They know about the dog, but at this point, we haven't had any formal discussions about sending one to school," he said.

Karen McClarnon, Cardinal Maida principal, said the Diocese of Greensburg gets the final say in whether or not Rowan can bring a service dog to school.

However, she said school and diocese officials would work to meet the boy's needs.

"I think it's always a possibility that he could bring the dog (to school), although it's something we'd have to discuss with the family," she said.

Alexander said communicating with Cardinal Maida officials about his son's needs has been an easy process. His experience with Kiski Area School District amounted to the exact opposite, he said.

The Alexanders removed Rowan from Allegheny/Hyde Park Elementary School after the first day of classes in August and enrolled him in cyber school, citing frustrations with how the district communicated with the family.

At the same time, there is evidence that district officials tried to engage the family in a dialogue about the issue, despite initially denying their request.

The family told the Valley News Dispatch in September that it first contacted district officials in June with a request to send Leslie to school with Rowan. They said district officials waited until Aug. 28 to deny the request. School started Aug. 31.

John Meighan, Kiski Area superintendent, said at the time that district officials had little experience in dealing with service dogs and needed to consider the impact one might have on other students who have allergies or are afraid of dogs.

Prior to Rowan, there was at least one Kiski Area student who used a service dog. Meighan said the student suffered from a physical handicap that affected her mobility.

Presumably in response to the Alexanders' request, school directors adopted a service dog policy on Sept. 21. The policy states that officials will consider service dog requests on a case-by-case basis.

Previously, the district sent the Alexanders a letter on Sept. 3 indicating that officials wanted to discuss the issue with the family. The letter, which William Alexander made available to the newspaper, offered three dates for a sit-down and indicated that the option for Rowan to bring his dog to school still existed.

The letter also informed the family that district officials felt confident Rowan's medical needs could be addressed without a service dog.

Meighan said last week there are a number of students in the district who suffer from Type I diabetes. He suggested that some cases are severe and are being successfully controlled without a service dog.

Beyond sending the letter, a district official also called the Alexanders in an effort to follow up. The family never responded.

"We did everything we could to reach out to the family," Meighan said last week.

William Alexander said the family decided not to respond because the district's efforts, in his mind, fell short. He indicated that his frustration with the district reached a point where he felt nothing could be gained by continuing discussions.

"The letter the district sent just handcuffed us too much," Alexander said.

The letter, in part, required Leslie to meet certain behavior and grooming standards and have a current health certificate from a veterinarian.

"We weren't going to sign something that was so one-sided," Alexander said.

The Valley News Dispatch requested a copy of the letter from the school district. District officials denied the request, saying the letter contained educational and health information about Rowan that is protected under state and federal law.

Moving forward

It appears the final resolution is that the two sides have nothing more to talk about.

"At this point, I have no intentions of broaching the subject with (Kiski Area officials) at all," William Alexander said. "I want to move on with my son's education."

Alexander said he was impressed with how officials at Cardinal Maida Academy have shown a willingness to work with the family in meeting Rowan's health needs.

He said school officials had planned to visit with the family before Monday to better understand the equipment Rowan uses to control his diabetes.

Still, the issue of sending a service dog to school with Rowan remains unresolved for the time being.

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