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Guide-Dog Trainer : Blind Protest School Firing at Hearing

Times Staff Writer

About 25 blind people complained to a state panel in Burbank on Saturday that the dismissal of the head instructor at a Sylmar guide-dog school and the subsequent resignation of two other teachers will diminish the quality of service at the school.

The state Board of Guide Dogs for the Blind, which licenses guide-dog schools and instructors, held the meeting at the Burbank Hilton after receiving about 30 letters and numerous phone calls from blind people concerned about attrition at International Guiding Eyes.

“The trainer who worked with me and my dog is no longer there,” said Lynn Coats, 26, whose golden retriever, Preston, sniffed at one of the many guide dogs at the meeting. “What am I supposed to do if I have a problem with my dog and the guy who trained us to work together isn’t around?”

Merrill Melvin, director of the nonprofit school, said he had to fire head instructor Lee Mitchell on July 15 because of a $230,000 budget shortfall. In 1987, the school’s budget was $1.3 million; this year it dropped to just over $1 million because of dwindling revenue from bingo games and cancellation of an annual fund-raising dinner.

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On Saturday, the seven-member board did not act on requests to investigate Mitchell’s dismissal because it has no authority over personnel matters at the private school. However, International Guiding Eyes is required to have at least one licensed instructor or the board could withdraw its license. As of Friday, three of the school’s four instructors had left, and one was on maternity leave.

School officials announced Saturday that a new head instructor will report to work this week to replace Mitchell. Two other instructors resigned in protest over Mitchell’s dismissal.

“We’re confident that the quality of the school will remain at the same high level as it always has been and that the complaints expressed here today will prove to be without foundation,” said Robert A. Bush, an attorney for the school, after the two-hour meeting.

Doris Ham, 49, of Santa Barbara, said the hiring of a new head instructor does not address the need for continuity in the relationship between the instructor, guide dog and blind person. The blind, who live at the school during International Guiding Eyes’ monthlong program, develop close ties to their instructors, she said. The school provides free guide dogs and training in how to handle them.

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An instructor spends at least three days getting to know his blind student to match him with the proper dog, Ham said. For instance, some blind people walk very slowly and cannot handle a fast-paced dog, she said. Before giving his student a dog, the instructor puts on a harness and demonstrates the proper handling of a dog by playing the part of the animal, she said.

After the pupil completes the training program, it is essential that he be able to consult with the same trainer in case problems arise, Ham said. If a dog turns out to be too distracted or “can’t seem to get you across a big intersection, it’s helpful to have the same instructor come out and work with you,” Ham said.

Tom Gelder, a member of the school foundation’s board, said the students will not suffer in the absence of its former instructors. The school, he said, “functioned well before Lee Mitchell, and it’ll function just as well without him.”


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