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Press Release: Empire Justice Center Applauds Positive Department of Justice Determination in Service Dog Complaint for Rochester Area Child


April 14, 2015

Contact: Kristin Small,  (585) 454-4060

Rochester, New York - Empire Justice Center is pleased to announce that yesterday the Department of Justice published a Letter of Findings stating that the Gates-Chili Central School District violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in refusing to provide our eight year old client, Devyn Pereira, with reasonable accommodations that would allow her to act as the handler for her service dog, Hannah.  Devyn has Angelman Syndrome, autism, seizure disorder and a number of other disabilities for which Hannah provides potentially life-saving support.  Hannah is able to detect oncoming seizures, allowing caregivers to administer emergency seizure medication.  She is also trained to assist Devyn to walk independently, to calm down when she is overly upset, and to prevent her from “eloping” (wandering away by herself into potentially dangerous situations).  Devyn needs some support from school staff in issuing verbal commands to Hannah and in tethering and untethering herself from the dog.  However since September 2012, Gates-Chili has insisted that it is not obligated to provide Devyn with this support, and required Devyn’s mother Heather Pereira to pay for a separate adult handler as a condition of allowing the dog to accompany Devyn to school.

According to Kristin Small, staff attorney at Empire Justice Center, “the DOJ has made it clear that while a school is not responsible to feed, walk or groom a student’s service animal, neither is a school district allowed to throw up its hands when a student with disabilities needs some support in order to effectively handle a service dog.  While these findings do not carry the weight of a new law or regulation, they do reveal the Department of Justice’s position on what was previously a gray area.  For that reason, this letter could impact families in similar disputes around the country.”

In its Letter, the Department of Justice has directed the Gates-Chili School District to permit Devyn to act as the handler for Hannah and to provide the occasional assistance which will allow her to do so. It further directed Gates-Chili to train school administrators and staff on their obligations under the ADA, to publish a revised ADA service animal policy on its website, and to change its practices to avoid future discrimination against students with disabilities.  Lastly, it directed Gates-Chili to pay the Pereira family compensatory damages, including pain and suffering.  Gates-Chili has two weeks to respond to the letter in order to reach a voluntary resolution with the Department of Justice and avoid the possibility of a lawsuit.

“After three long years, this Letter of Findings confirms what we knew in our hearts all along. Devyn can no longer be denied the help she needs to use her service dog at school,” said Heather Pereira, Devyn’s mother. “This statement of support from the DOJ is not only for Devyn, but for all the families facing similar injustices. We are truly grateful for our strong public support and devoted legal team at Empire Justice Center. Everyone came together to ensure that Devyn’s voice was finally heard.”

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Empire Justice Center is a statewide, multi-issue, multi-strategy, public interest law firm focused on improving the “systems” within which poor and low-income families live. Empire Justice protects and strengthens the legal rights of people in New York State who are poor, disabled or disenfranchised through: systems change advocacy, training and support to other advocates and organizations, and high quality direct civil legal representation. Empire Justice has four offices in Albany, Rochester, White Plains and on Long Island.