In April 2014, 9-year-old Kenner Fee was denied the right to bring his service dog to school by the Waterloo Catholic District School Board. Kenner has autism, which causes him to be anxious and have emotional outbursts. His black Labrador, Ivy, helped him stay calm and regulate his behaviour. In August 2017, the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal (“HRTO”) upheld the school board’s decision and found that despite the positive impact that Ivy had on Kenner, he could still perform in school without his dog. Based on evidence provided by Kenner’s school, the HRTO determined that denying Kenner’s request to have Ivy accompany him to class did not have an “adverse impact on his right to meaningful access to the educational services provided.”
The HRTO’s decision was met with much dismay by the autism community. Families felt that it was unjust that policies on service animals were ultimately left to the discretion of individual school boards. “To me, your rights should not change depending on your postal code,” said Laura Kirby-McIntosh, then Vice-President of the Ontario Autism Coalition. At the time, just over half of Ontario school boards had service animal policies.
In light of the HRTO’s decision, the government of Ontario passed Bill 48, the Safe and Supportive Classrooms Act, 2019, in April 2019, which amended the Education Act to authorize the Minister of Education to issue policies and guidelines on service animals in schools. Now, more than two years after the HRTO decision, the Minister of Education has announced a new policy directive in support of improving access to service animals in schools for students with disabilities. The policy directive creates a uniform standard on student access to service animals for school boards across the province.
Under the new policy directive, school boards in Ontario are required to develop, implement, and maintain a policy on student use of service animals in schools by January 1, 2020. School boards are expected to:
- Allow a student to be accompanied by a service animal in school when doing so would be an appropriate accommodation to support the student’s learning needs;
- Determine whether to approve requests for service animals on a case-by-case basis; and
- Put in place consistent and transparent processes that allow for meaningful consideration of requests for service animals.
The policy directive applies to all publicly funded elementary and secondary schools, including extended day-programs operated by school boards.
Note that under the Accessibility for Ontario with Disabilities Act, 2005 (“AODA”), service animals do not just include service dogs, but any animal that provides support to a person with a disability for disability-related needs. When developing their policies, school boards must respect their obligations under the AODA, as well as the Blind Persons’ Rights Act (specific to guide dogs for persons with visual disabilities) and the Ontario Human Rights Code (where schools boards have a duty to accommodate the needs of students with disabilities to the point of undue hardship i.e. in consideration of financial costs, outside funding and risk to health and safety.)
PooranLaw welcomes the greater guidance and consistency from Ontario on school board policies related to service animals in schools. The new policy directive sets a standard for all school boards that should help ensure that students with disabilities who require service animals have meaningful access to education. To further discuss the implications of this new policy for you or your family, please contact Melanie Battaglia.
For more information on Education Law and the Rights of Families and Students with disabilities visit our Learn section.
For more information on the policy directive, you can access the Ministry of Education Policy Memorandum, School Board Policies on Service Animals here.