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Judge rules in favor of letting autistic boy take service dog to school

By the time summer school starts in early July, Caleb will probably walk into class with a golden retriever at his side.

Caleb Ciriacks is a 7-year-old severely autistic boy who for the most part doesn’t speak. He shrieks and paces when he gets anxious, and on occasion he pinches and scratches others. Eddy is Caleb’s service dog, tethered to the boy by a red strap. The dog keeps Caleb from running off into crowds or darting into traffic, and he knows to intervene when the boy starts to feel anxious.

When Caleb entered first grade last year, school officials in Cypress refused to let him take Eddy to school. Caleb’s parents sued in federal court, alleging that the district was discriminating against their son based on his disability.

On Tuesday, a federal judge in Santa Ana ruled that Frank Vessels Elementary School must let Caleb take Eddy to school and that the boy was probably a victim of discrimination. U.S. Department of Justice attorneys filed a “statement of interest” in the case, saying the school district was violating the boy’s civil rights and misinterpreting the Americans With Disabilities Act.

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The district had argued in court papers that Eddy does not qualify as a service dog under federal statutes, and that his presence could disrupt school activities and be burdensome for staff. Attorneys for the school district also said the dog could undermine Caleb’s independence and self-control.

U.S. District Judge Andrew Guilford granted a preliminary injunction in favor of the student, finding that keeping the boy and the dog apart during school hours could diminish their bond and disrupt their relationship. Not allowing the dog to accompany Caleb to school “could cause [Caleb] serious harm in his ability to enjoy any of the benefits that Eddy was meant to provide,” he wrote.

A trial to determine whether the boy can permanently be accompanied by the dog at school is expected next year. An attorney representing the district did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Guilford, however, said the family would have to post a $50,000 bond in case the school needs to reassign or hire additional staff to accommodate the dog. Attorneys for the Disability Rights Legal Center, who along with the law firm Winston & Strawn represented Caleb’s family, said they would ask the judge to reconsider the bond because the dog requires minimal attention and does not pose a risk.

Caleb’s mother, Milka, said she was thrilled by the court’s decision and hoped it would help get the needs of other autistic children recognized.

“If Caleb is scared, he feels safe having Eddy there,” she said. “Once they start going to school together, he’ll be able to really make use of Eddy.”

victoria.kim@latimes.com


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