A first-grader in central Illinois gets to keep his autism helper dog in school, a Douglas County judge ruled Tuesday.
Judge Chris Freese sided with the family of Kaleb Drew, who argued that the boy's yellow Labrador retriever is a service animal allowed in schools under Illinois law. They say the dog is similar to a seeing-eye dog for the blind and is trained to help Kaleb deal with his disabilities, keeping him safe and calm in class.
The Villa Grove school district had opposed the dog's presence and argued that it isn't a true service animal.
The case and a separate lawsuit involving an autistic boy in southwestern Illinois are the first challenges to an Illinois law allowing service animals in schools.
Authorities in both school districts have said that the needs of the autistic boys must be balanced against other children who have allergies or fear the animals.
Kaleb Drew's dog, Chewey, has accompanied him to school since August under court order, pending the judge's final ruling Tuesday on the family's lawsuit against the school district.
Similar lawsuits have been filed on behalf of autistic children in other states, including California and Pennsylvania.
The judge ruled that the Drews had presented "clear and convincing evidence" to show Chewey is a service animal that helps the boy function, said attorney Margie Wakelin, who works with Chicago-based Equip for Equality and represented the family.
"I'm very pleased and happy that Kaleb and Chewey are going to get to continue their work together and continue to grow as a team and learn from each other," Nichelle Drew, Kaleb's mother, said after the ruling.
She says the dog keeps Kaleb from running in front of cars in the school parking lot, and helps him with difficulties transitioning from one activity to another by helping him feel calm.
The Villa Grove school district has 30 days to appeal; its attorney, Brandon Wright, said no decision has been made on whether to do so.
Despite ruling for the Drew family, the judge "clearly recognized the conundrum the school district finds itself in," Wright said. The law offers no guidance on how schools are supposed to accommodate service animals, including whether they need to train school staff to work with the animals, Wright said.
The other Illinois case involves 5-year-old Carter Kalbfleisch and is being handled in the Mount Vernon-based 5th District Appellate Court.
In a preliminary ruling in August, a Monroe County judge allowed Carter to bring his dog to pre-kindergarten class. The district appealed, and the appellate court is mulling the district's claims that the Kalbfleisches erred by not taking up the matter with the state board of education before suing.