Hello! I would like to introduce myself as a new blogger to this site. My name is Diane Petillo, and I am attorney in charge of the Civil Trial Division at the Law Offices of Anthony J. Colleluori (a/k/a “That Lawyer Dude”). Tony asked me for my thoughts on a recent case that you may have heard of in East Meadow, New York. I’m sure by now that you have all heard about John Cave, Jr. and his quest to bring his companion dog, Simba, to school with him.
John is now 14 years old, and he has been deaf since early childhood, and has struggled his whole life to be able to function in society like everyone else. Unfortunately, for someone who is profoundly deaf and has difficulty speaking, this is no easy task. Even having cochlear implants inserted in both ears did not fully solve the problem.
He recently became eligible for a service dog. He was required to pass the ADI Public Access test in order to qualify. After passing the test, he received Simba, a two-year old Labrador retriever, who would be his “ears” for the future. This was made possible only through grants from various individuals and organizations.
Now that John’s his life, arguably, should be a little easier, along comes the East Meadow (NY) School District to throw a wrench in the works.
Before I give you my thoughts on this case, I feel in the interests of fairness and full disclosure, I must tell you of my personal bias towards the abilities of Labrador Retrievers. I am known on my block as the proud “mother” of a 2-year old yellow Labrador Retriever named Kirby, who may very well be a human trapped in a cute, furry puppy suit. Kirby has figured out for himself how to open doorknobs (sometimes to our chagrin…like to time he let himself out of the house). He also treats the ice dispenser on the refrigerator door as “self-serve” although no such sign was ever formally posted. (If this grosses you out, bring your own cubes to my house[yes, we do clean it…OFTEN]).
As someone who has seen first-hand, with constant wonderment, the abilities of Labradors and how they interact so humanly with people, I truly understand his mother’s concerns that John needs to “connect” with Simba throughout the day in order to fully bond with Simba. Labradors, when left to sulk for the morning and afternoon, are not as in tune with their “people.” They thrive on human interaction, and, conversely, when such interaction is withheld for long intervals, they can lose their skills that are not regularly being reinforced. They can even become resentful of the lack of attention. (How would you feel if someone said, “be right back” and came back 8-10 hours later, and then did this again to you for 5 out of every 7 days?). If John and Simba aren’t permitted to bond, Simba will become a very expensive, and under-used assistance dog.
After all, even though Simba is a working dog, he is still just 14 year old (2 dog years = 14 human years) with boundless energy and a need to connect with John Jr. so that they may bond and function as one.
John Jr. is the most important human in Simba’s life as a working dog; John Jr. is the person to whom Simba must be unquestionable loyal. Their relationship and trust must build to the point that, if Simba were his secret service agent, he would be willing to take a bullet for John Jr.
As a volunteer at Pal-O-Mine Equestrian, a non-profit horseback riding program dedicated to teaching horseback riding to individuals with special needs, I have seen the magic that results when a child and a trained animal work together therapeutically.
They are united in their common goal of making the student’s life better on a physical and, often more importantly, on an emotional level.
Yes, no question, John, Jr. could get by on a daily basis without Simba. But should he have to? If you lost your eyeglasses or a contact lens, perhaps you’d find your way home, but that doesn’t mean that your corrective lenses are not effective in making your day easier. You could squint your way through this blog, but it may take 3 times as long. Even if just once Simba catches an auditory signal that John wouldn’t have picked up on, would that make a difference in his life?
We live in a world where people justify buying cell phones for their children to bring to school in the name of safety. Are you telling me that a service dog that is well behaved is more of a distraction in school than text messaging? Why then, are we so critical of a parent wanting extra protection for their children who legally are entitled to this assistance? Even Judge Arthur Spatt noted in his courtroom that Simba was nothing but quiet during the entire court proceeding. In Judge Spatt’s own words "The dog is in this room and seems not to have bothered anyone so far…what is the harm of this boy bringing the dog? What seems to be the problem?”
There is no question that rules must be enforced regarding hygiene, safety and proper etiquette. Simba can even be a teaching tool at a general assembly for the entire school. Children should learn the rules for interacting with the deaf community, in the event they encounter a deaf person in the outside world. All of us could stand to be reminded of how to (or, in most cases, not to) interact with a service dog. Such a dog is not a “pet.”
Simba is not to be teased. He is not a plaything, but an integral part of the life of a deaf person. The school should have no more tolerance for the interference with Simba than they would for kicking the crutch out from under a child with special needs.
I don’t know how the Court will decide....but I know what I would do if I were in a position to do so. The job of a school is to encourage children in their scholastic endeavors to foster independence, and humanity. How then can the school justify calling the police on John, Jr. and his parents because they had the nerve to come to school with a service dog? Shouldn’t they instead be doing everything in their power to make his life easier? If certain “protocols” must be followed, then why isn’t a school representative or a guidance counselor assigned to help the family get through those protocols?
But hey, that’s just my opinion. Stay tuned for the court’s ruling.