Court Tells School: Let Autistic Boy Bring Dog

School district argued that "service dog" not essential

By Matt Bartosik
|  Friday, Dec 18, 2009  |  Updated 2:15 PM CDT
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Animals in the News

Carter Kalbfleisch with his service dog Corbin.

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Little Carter Kalbfleisch and his dog Corbin are an inseparable duo. They go everywhere together, playful companions for life, and Carter's parents couldn't be happier.

In fact, Chris and Melissa Kalbfleisch credit Corbin for helping ease the symptoms of Carter's autism. The developmental disorder can cause behavioral problems like impaired social interaction, poor communication, and repetitive movements. But when Corbin is around, Carter's parents say the boy is significantly calmer and has fewer tantrums.

So when it was time for 5-year-old Carter to attend his special education pre-kindergarten class, he naturally wanted to bring along his canine friend, Corbin.

But officials of the Columbia Community School District said, No Dogs Allowed.

The school district argued that Corbin was not a true "service dog" because the animal was neither essential to managing a disability, nor did it provide an educational purpose. The dog simply provided Carter with comfort.

Also, at least one student in Carter's class was reported to be allergic to animal fur, and the school district had an obligation to protect the student's safety and health.

The Kalbfleisches sued the school district, and in August, a Monroe County judge temporarily ruled that the dog be allowed into the class, pending a full hearing.

However, instead of allowing the dog into the classroom, the Columbia School District stated that it could not meet Carter's educational needs and transferred him to the Illinois Center for Autism in Fairview Heights. While the district agreed to pay for Carter's education at the Center, they refused to pay for his (and the dog's) transportation, even though the school was 45 minutes away.

Hoping to mainstream Carter and Corbin back into their home school district, the Kalbfleisches didn't give up their legal battle.

"Before the dog issue, the school district agreed that Carter should be mainstreamed with other children," said the family's attorney, Clay St. Clair, according to bnd.com. "The school district said that would be best for him."

On Wednesday, a three-judge panel of the 5th District Appellate Court ruled unanimously in the lower court's favor, stating, "There was ample evidence to support the circuit court's finding that Carter would suffer irreparable harm if Corbin was not allowed to accompany him at school."

And what about the student allergic to dogs?

The court gave "the school district [three weeks] to accommodate both students," read the appellate court decision (PDF). "There was no evidence presented that the other child would be allergic to Corbin, a hypoallergenic dog, that the school district could not accommodate both students, or that the school district would suffer great hardship by having Corbin at school with Carter."

"We're happy that it went our way," said Carter's father, Chris. "Hopefully the school will change their direction with this. ... Hopefully we can move forward and get our son back in school."

The school district has not yet made a comment about the court's decision.

Matt Bartosik is a Chicago native and a social media sovereign.

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