Anthony Merchante 7, sits with his mother Monica Alboniga in their Sunrise, Fla. home as Anthony’s service dog Stevie, licks his fingers. U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom ruled that Stevie should be allowed to join Anthony at school. (Charles Trainor Jr./Miami Herald/TNS)
Stevie is a good dog. He doesn’t eat from the table or have accidents in the house. And he never pulls on his leash.
The white-and-tan Staffordshire terrier also has a special talent: He alerts caregivers when his little boy, Anthony Merchante, is going to have a seizure or has trouble breathing.
Anthony’s mother, Monica Alboniga, tried for two years to persuade the Broward County School Board in South Florida to permit Stevie, a trained service animal, to accompany the 7-year-old on campus. But school administrators repeatedly said Stevie didn’t belong at school. And they hoped that a Fort Lauderdale federal judge would agree with them.
Instead they got a scolding. Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom ruled that Stevie should be allowed to join his human friend at Nob Hill Elementary — and without a series of requirements the school district had tacked on.
Stevie, Alboniga said, “has saved Anthony’s life. I feel completely safe every time he is with the dog, because I know the dog will look for help.”
As the lawsuit progressed in federal court, the school board allowed Stevie to go to school every day, but administrators continued to fight the case.
“The district has always permitted the service dog at the school,” said the district’s spokeswoman, Tracy Clark. Alboniga “pursued the lawsuit as the parties [the district and the plaintiff] differ somewhat in the interpretation of the federal regulations governing service animals. The district’s legal department is reviewing and analyzing the order.”
Had the district won, Alboniga’s lawyer said, 4-year-old Stevie almost certainly would have been expelled.
Anthony suffers from a host of serious disabilities: He has cerebral palsy, spastic paralysis, a seizure disorder, and he cannot speak. To get around, he depends on a wheelchair, to which Stevie is tethered most of the time.
Alboniga, 37, who is raising her son alone, paid to obtain and train a dog up to the specifications of Assistance Dog International Standards, records say. Stevie can aid caregivers in a variety of ways: He can step onto Anthony’s wheelchair and lay across the boy’s lap; once there, the dog is trained to help stabilize Anthony’s head so his airway isn’t impeded.
“Stevie was also trained to ‘tell’ or ‘alert’ human responders in the event that [Anthony] was experiencing a medical crisis,” Bloom wrote. The dog can jump on a sensor mat that activates an alarm, or bark to get the attention of caregivers. He also wears a red service dog vest that holds medical supplies, as well as detailed instructions on how to respond to medical emergencies.
“Stevie lets me know when he has seizures or problems breathing. He pushes me toward Anthony. He barks,” Alboniga said. “When Anthony is having convulsions, he starts barking and goes looking for us. Then he goes back to Anthony and stays with him.”
At home in Sunrise, Fla., Stevie is also a house pet, although he isn’t all that interested in Anthony’s baby sister, Mariangel, a 5-month-old, because he seems to intuitively understand that Anthony is his full-time job. “He loves Anthony,” Alboniga said. “And Anthony loves Stevie, too.”
“He is a very good dog,” Alboniga said. “He is very sweet, and very obedient. He is the best there is.”
All 50 pounds of Stevie rest next to Anthony in bed each night, and the boy and dog are virtually inseparable. That’s partly by design. It’s best if service animals spend almost all of their time with their “targets,” trainers say, and long separations diminish the animal’s “responsiveness and effectiveness,” Bloom wrote.
Alboniga first approached the school board in May 2013, and submitted a formal request for the dog two months later. In its reply in August 2013, the school board said Stevie must obtain a host of vaccinations that rarely are applied to dogs, required Alboniga to obtain costly liability insurance, and mandated that she provide, at her own expense, a “handler” for Stevie.
The requirements, said Alboniga’s lawyer, Matthew Dietz, amounted to “an impossible barrier,” and violated federal civil rights laws that give preference to the choices of people with disabilities. “The fact that the judge said the school board’s rules made no sense vindicates this woman’s belief that what she was doing for her son was the right thing,” Dietz said.
For the first four months that Anthony attended Nob Hill Elementary School as a kindergartner, beginning in August 2013, Alboniga worked, at the district’s requirement, as Stevie’s handler herself. Later, the school board appointed a custodian to work as Stevie’s handler. His responsibilities were “to walk Stevie alongside [Anthony] with a leash, instead of allowing Stevie to be attached” to the boy’s wheelchair, and to take the dog outside to urinate. The custodian also ensured that other children did not try to play with the dog.
“While at school,” the judge wrote, “Stevie does not eat or drink. Nor does Stevie defecate or make stains, or require cleaning or exercise.” Alboniga, the judge said, “attends to Stevie’s daily feeding, cleaning and care needs.”
But administrators continued to assert in the lawsuit that it was not the district’s responsibility to help the boy keep Stevie at school. Anthony’s “individual educational plan” — a detailed accounting of the school’s accommodations to the child — does not mention Anthony’s use of a service dog, Bloom wrote.
Anthony found a friend in the U.S. Department of Justice. The department’s civil rights division enforces the Americans with Disabilities Act, landmark legislation passed by Congress in 1990. Last month, the DOJ weighed in on the lawsuit, arguing that the school board “fundamentally misunderstands” ADA regulations, which require that “public entities generally must permit individuals with disabilities to be accompanied by their service animals.”
“Congress specifically intended that individuals with disabilities not be separated from their service animals, even in schools,” the DOJ wrote.
The school board contended that it wasn’t necessary for Stevie to accompany Anthony to school since the elementary’s staff already was trained to perform the same tasks as Stevie. The district also argued that, even if Stevie was permitted on Nob Hill’s campus under the ADA, it was not reasonable for the district to bear the costs of the dog’s handler.
The judge wrote that the dispute pivoted on whether it was reasonable to expect the district to allow Stevie on campus under the federal civil rights law.
The judge ruled that it was indeed reasonable, “in the same way a school would assist a non-disabled child to use the restroom, or assist a diabetic child with her insulin pump, or assist a physically disabled child employ her motorized wheelchair.