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Kiski Area School District tells diabetic boy to leave dog home

| Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2009

Leslie's job is to prevent the worst.

For that reason, William and Amy Alexander of Washington Township wanted to send the 2-year-old German shepherd to school last month with their son, Rowan, 6.

Rowan suffers from Type 1 diabetes. He depends on the dog to alert his parents by whining or pawing at him when the boy's blood sugar is too low or too high.

Responding promptly to Leslie's signs should prevent Rowan from suffering a seizure or falling into diabetic shock.

The Alexanders said they invested more than $10,000 in Leslie to ensure their son's health and welfare.

The problem for the Alexanders is that Kiski Area School District officials didn't agree with their plans to send the dog with Rowan for the Aug. 31 start of classes at Allegheny/Hyde Park Elementary School.

Officials indicated they haven't had much experience, if any, with requests from parents who want to send a service dog to school with their child.

School directors are in the process of adopting a service dog policy, which would establish guidelines for such things as how often the dogs need rested and what to do in the event another child is allergic to dogs.

Presumably, the Alexanders' request prompted district officials to create the policy, which should get final approval next month.

School board President Gary Haag couldn't be reached for comment.

"Obviously, it's a little different having a dog in a school setting than in other public settings," Superintendent John Meighan said. "Districts do have to develop things to handle these types of situations."

Meighan said he was limited in how he could comment because of privacy laws.

"I can't discuss student medical issues," Meighan said. "What I can say is that we are trying to enter into an interactive process with the family" in an effort to resolve the issue.

Amy Alexander said she contacted district officials in June for permission to send Leslie to the school.

Denied at last minute

Fast-forward to mid-August, and the family still hadn't received a response, Alexander said.

"It was two weeks before school, and we hadn't heard anything," she said.

Said William Alexander: "We really weren't getting the answers we needed. What we wanted to do was help Rowan transition into school — his first-grade year — as easily as possible."

Amy Alexander said it wasn't until Aug. 28 that she got a call from a district official who told her that the dog couldn't accompany Rowan to school.

"I was shocked," Alexander said.

Alexander said district officials felt they could meet Rowan's needs without having Leslie there and supported their argument by noting that there are other diabetic students in the district who don't have service dogs.

Rowan wound up attending Allegheny/Hyde Park Elementary School for one day before his parents enrolled him in cyber school.

School Director Patrick Leyland said the administration had not made the school board aware of Rowan Alexander and his plight. He said he believed that it was routine policy update.

"This is all news to me," Leyland said.

"If there is a problem out there, all of the parties involved need to sit down at the table and work it out," he said.

Leyland said the priority should be the child who wants to go to a public school.

"The child comes first," he said.

Not having much social interaction during the day doesn't seem to bother Rowan, who loves to talk about hockey and said he's looking forward to learning to ice-skate.

"I like doing what I'm doing now," he said about cyber school.

Rowan is obviously fond of Leslie. His face erupts into a broad smile when he puts his arm around the dog.

Rowan is one of the few people who can interact playfully with Leslie because the dog is constantly "working" to ensure Rowan's OK, William Alexander said.

Not very common

Service dogs who help diabetics are not very common. A spokeswoman for the American Diabetes Association said the ADA has no official position on the dogs because of a lack of proof that they're effective.

"It's a new thing," Frances Rosemeyer, a program coordinator with Canine Assistants, said of diabetic alert dogs. "We've only placed a few of them."

Canine Assistants, a nonprofit, trains and places service dogs with patients who suffer from physical disabilities.

The issue of a diabetic student wanting to take a service dog to school grabbed headlines earlier this month in Yonkers, N.Y.

The Yonkers school district denied the student access to school, according to a New York TV station. District officials said the primary reason was the lack of proof that diabetic alert dogs are effective.

The boy's mother, meantime, told the TV outlet that she has no doubt as to the dog's ability to detect glucose levels.

The Alexanders said they're just as convinced that Leslie is an effective resource in keeping their son healthy.

"She has been a godsend so far," William Alexander said. "She has alerted us more than 100 times that Rowan's sugar has been too low."

Alexander said that since his diagnosis about 1 1/2 years ago, Rowan hasn't suffered any diabetic emergencies.

"We're still very interested in working this out with the school," William Alexander said.

Additional Information:

Picking up the scent

Officials in the service dog industry and with the American Diabetes Association say there is no proof that diabetic-alert dogs are effective at detecting changes in blood sugar levels.

However, some research has suggested that the dogs detect a scent from the body when glucose levels drop too low or climb too high.

The dogs most likely smell acetone, researchers say.

Frances Rosemeyer, an official with Canine Assistants, a nonprofit that trains and places service dogs with patients who suffer from physical disabilities, said diabetic-alert dogs can't be 'trained' to detect changes in body chemistry. It's a 'sense' the dogs are born with, she said.

For more about diabetes, visit .

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