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Who Handles Carina? Service Dog for North Haverhill Boy at Center of Dispute Between Family, School District

  • Andrew Riley, 6, takes a nap next to his service dog, a Labradoodle named Carina at his home in North Haverhill, N.H., on March 8, 2014. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    Andrew Riley, 6, takes a nap next to his service dog, a Labradoodle named Carina at his home in North Haverhill, N.H., on March 8, 2014.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • Andrew Riley, 6, gazes out the window while his service dog, a Labradoodle named Carina, naps on the couch at his home in North Haverhill, N.H., on March 8, 2014. Riley, who suffers from frequent seizures, among other health problems, attends school each day with Carina, who alerts adults when Riley is about to have a seizure. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    Andrew Riley, 6, gazes out the window while his service dog, a Labradoodle named Carina, naps on the couch at his home in North Haverhill, N.H., on March 8, 2014. Riley, who suffers from frequent seizures, among other health problems, attends school each day with Carina, who alerts adults when Riley is about to have a seizure.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • An explanation of rights of service dogs and contact information for Paws4 Ability, the service dog organization that trained Carina, is visible on Carina's service dog vest at the Riley's home in North Haverhill, N.H., on March 8, 2014. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    An explanation of rights of service dogs and contact information for Paws4 Ability, the service dog organization that trained Carina, is visible on Carina's service dog vest at the Riley's home in North Haverhill, N.H., on March 8, 2014.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jamie Riley holds her son Andrew, 6, at their home in North Haverhill, N.H., on March 8, 2014. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    Jamie Riley holds her son Andrew, 6, at their home in North Haverhill, N.H., on March 8, 2014.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • Andrew Riley, 6, takes a nap next to his service dog, a Labradoodle named Carina at his home in North Haverhill, N.H., on March 8, 2014. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap
  • Andrew Riley, 6, gazes out the window while his service dog, a Labradoodle named Carina, naps on the couch at his home in North Haverhill, N.H., on March 8, 2014. Riley, who suffers from frequent seizures, among other health problems, attends school each day with Carina, who alerts adults when Riley is about to have a seizure. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap
  • An explanation of rights of service dogs and contact information for Paws4 Ability, the service dog organization that trained Carina, is visible on Carina's service dog vest at the Riley's home in North Haverhill, N.H., on March 8, 2014. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap
  • Jamie Riley holds her son Andrew, 6, at their home in North Haverhill, N.H., on March 8, 2014. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

North Haverhill — Six-year-old Andrew Riley was born severely handicapped. Non-verbal, part deaf and visually impaired, he has a low cognitive level and must be fed through a tube — but perhaps his most trying challenge is persistent seizures.

These days, his mother said, he suffers up to five daily “drop attacks,” in which he falls to the ground, and several more tonic seizures,” during which he stares ahead as his body becomes stiff and rigid. He experiences an average of 10 to 15 additional seizures throughout the night, she said.

“When they happen, they kind of scare him a little bit, and he’ll cry,” said his mother, Jamie Riley. “We’ll try to hold him and comfort him.”

Riley and her husband, Allen, said they have tried everything to combat their son’s seizures since his intractable epilepsy was diagnosed when he was 11 months old, including taking him to hospitals around the country for testing and trying a slew of different medications, including some not yet approved in the United States. But nothing worked for long.

That’s where Carina — a cream-colored Labradoodle — comes in.

The Rileys brought Carina home from an Ohio-based service dog organization in fall 2010 — a community fundraiser covered the $14,000 cost — and now the nearly 4-year-old dog helps “pre-alert” Andrew’s caregivers when she senses an oncoming seizure. This advance warning allows them to activate a pacemaker-like device in Andrew’s body called a “vagus nerve stimulator,” which is designed to prevent the seizure or lessen its effects.

Andrew is a first-grader at Woodsville Elementary School. A school aide, who is also a nurse, accompanies him throughout the day. But Andrew is unable to issue commands to Carina, or to hold her leash while walking between classes.

Andrew’s family has suggested that the aide handle Carina. But the school district has said that, if it becomes responsible for that task, it will have to hire a second person to do it.

The question is: Who is responsible for finding someone to handle the service dog — the family or the school district?

The issue highlights the challenges and complexities that both families and school districts face in providing accommodation and equal education to all students, regardless of ability, especially when it comes to service dogs. A guiding memo from the National Association of School Nurses suggests that a request to bring a service animal into a school presents questions “due to the complex disability discrimination laws,” among other factors.

“It’s sad. It’s gray (area),” said Carol Holmes, a founding member of the Dog Guide Users of New Hampshire, a support group. Based on her experiences and her understanding, and without knowing the specifics of Andrew’s case, Holmes said she feels the school district is probably not legally responsible for handling the dog.

“It’s kind of heart-jerking in a way, because dogs can do wonderful things,” Holmes said. “But I think you got to be careful here. … There’s a lot of issues there. It’s not just holding a leash.”

Others agreed, including Bill Finn, an administrator at the New Hampshire Department of Education’s Office of Services for Blind and Visually Impaired. In his experience, situations like this are generally easily resolved. In other cases, however, “it can get pretty complicated.”

Officials at SAU 23 agree that Carina belongs in school with Andrew. But they dispute his parents’ assertion — which they and their attorney base on their reading of a voluntary resolution agreement between the family and the district — that the school district is responsible for handling the dog.

The agreement, which was facilitated last spring by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights in Boston, states in part that the school district will “designate a staff member or outside aide or paraprofessional who will be responsible for issuing commands as needed and ensuring Carina accompany (Andrew) during transitions.”

At the same time, though, a federal law governing service dogs states that “a public entity is not responsible for the care or supervision of a service animal.”

Haverhill School Board Chairman Richard Guy said the discrepancy between the family’s interpretation of the agreement and that of the school district lies in the words “issuing commands.”

“ ‘Issuing commands’ is the tricky words, if you will,” Guy said. “It’s the wording that steers it away from being the dog’s handler, ‘handler’ being hands on.”

The aide or paraprofessional referenced in the agreement, Guy said, would “issue commands like ‘sit,’ and there’s no hands on, no physical connection between the two.”

For the Rileys, allowing the dog in school is not enough. The couple — she works for a small health care center and he is an independent welder — were, for months, paying a friend $200 a week to take their three children to and from school, and to handle Carina in school every day. Strapped for money , they recently negotiated the weekly payments down to $75.

“I don’t believe that’s how the agreement was intended,” said Jamie Riley, who contacted the Valley News about the dispute.

In a brief interview, SAU 23 Superintendent Bruce C. Labs said he could not participate in a full discussion of the case because of the potential for litigation.

“We’ve been asked to go further than the law asks us to do,” Labs said. “That’s the open and shut of it. That’s the long and short of it.”

Constant Struggle

A recent Monday night, like many nights at the Riley household, was, in a word, hectic.

Nine-year-old Jessica sat at the kitchen table, assisted by her father as she worked on her fourth-grade homework, while 2-year-old Alex bounced around the attached living room area, playing with toys, climbing on furniture, shrieking and giggling.

In the middle of it all was Andrew, clinging to his mother as he sat in her lap. Carina, the service dog, sat on the floor nearby, unfazed by the commotion, even as the toddler built her into a pillow fort and, before he was stopped by his parents, playfully tried to pull her tail and ride her like a horse.

Andrew, with dark hair and eyeglasses, looked around the room from his mother’s lap, sometimes making noises or getting up to walk around. A few years ago, doctors inserted the vagus nerve stimulator beneath Andrew’s skin near his collarbone. The stimulator connects to his vagus nerve and can send electrical impulses to his brain, thereby easing the effects of the seizure.

But it’s up to Carina to alert Andrew’s caretakers when she senses a seizure may be coming, which allows them to swipe a magnet over the device to activate it.

The vagus nerve stimulator worked well for a while, the Rileys said, but it seems to be losing effectiveness. Doctors are exploring other options, including brain surgery.

“It makes me want to cry,” Jamie Riley said of the possibility of surgery.

For now, though, the couple continue to count on Carina — not only to tell family and aides when to activate the stimulator, but also to be on the lookout for seizures in general so Andrew can be positioned in a way that he won’t hit his head or hurt himself if he has a seizure and falls. That’s what motivated the family, Jamie Riley said: “What can we do to make him safer until we get his seizures under control?”

The few times Carina rose from the floor that Monday evening were during a roughly 15-minute period when she repeatedly approached Andrew to lick his face — the signal that she senses a seizure may be on the way.

His parents calmly took the magnet and swiped it over Andrew’s collarbone, where the faint outline of the square device can be seen under his skin.

The seizure never came, but they were on watch.

Long Discussions

Jamie Riley said the family’s discussions with the school district about Carina were rocky from the start.

The family picked her up in October 2010 from an organization called 4 Paws for Ability in Dayton, Ohio. After they returned from training sessions with 4 Paws, “it took us from November 2010 until July 2011 to get her in the door” of the school, Riley said.

The family also ran into problems bringing Carina to their daughter’s school sports games, which Andrew would attend with his family as a spectator.

“(Officials told us) ‘you can’t just show up with this service dog, you have to give us a warning,’ and I was like, ‘No, I don’t,’ ” Riley said.

The family eventually turned to the Disabilities Rights Center in Concord, but after “differences of opinion,” Riley said, the organization referred them to the Boston bureau of the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights.

Messages left recently for both offices were not returned.

Riley said school officials also argued about whether Carina was properly trained. Part of the voluntary resolution agreement required more training for the dog, at the school district’s expense.

“At the conclusion of the training,” the agreement reads, “if the trainer determines that Carina is unable to function in the school setting, the complainants may opt to pay for any additional training needed, or in the alternative provide a handler, at their own expense, if they wish to continue to have Carina accompany (Andrew) to school.”

Riley said Ohio-based 4 Paws, which maintains certain rights related to its service dogs’ training and care, objected to an outside trainer being brought in, raising concerns that the new training methods conflicted and interfered with how she had been trained in Ohio. The Rileys ultimately sent Carina back to Ohio for more training.

The Rileys maintain that the agreement generated by the Office of Civil Rights, which was signed by Labs, the superintendent, in May 2013, means that the district is responsible for handling Carina while Andrew is in school.

The work involved in handling Carina, they said, is minimal. They said she is trained to sit on a mat during classes, except to “pre-alert” a seizure. The biggest responsibility is holding her leash while Andrew moves from class to class.

Guy, the School Board chairman, said he was limited in what he could say publicly about a specific student’s case. Speaking generally, however, he said that if the school district were required to handle a service dog, the district would need to hire an additional staff person. But the cost of placing a special needs student in a residential program would be far greater than the cost of hiring an additional aide, he said.

A dispute like this, he said, often is not about money, but about “what does the agreement actually say?”

“We will not interfere with service dogs brought into our school system. We’re not going to ban them or prevent them or in any way interfere,” he said. “The handling, by federal law, is the family’s responsibility.”

Holmes, of the Dog Guide Users of New Hampshire, wondered whether a volunteer organization could take over handling the dog, and questioned why Andrew’s school aide, who remains with him throughout the day, couldn’t take on those responsibilities.

But she also stressed that handling a service dog is more complex than it may seem, including issuing commands, recognizing alerts, making sure the dog is well-behaved, keeping it from influencing young children in the classroom and vice versa, and taking it outside to relieve itself.

The memo from the National Association of School Nurses also references federal law stating that schools are not responsible for the care of service animals, but notes that the issue becomes complicated when the student is unable to handle his or her dog, according to the memo.

In those cases, the association writes, “communication and planning between school and home are essential in making adaptations to this rule.”

Holmes called the Riley case is unusual, sad and complicated.

“I would say its not the school’s responsibility and they have a right to say no,” she said, “but (whether) they choose to, that’s different.”

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.