Douglas County Judge Sides with Family of Autistic 6-Year Old
A Douglas County Judge has ruled that an autistic 1st grader can continue bringing his service dog to school. Judge Michael Freese sided Tuesday with the family of 6-year old Kaleb Drew, saying 'Chewey' clearly functions as a service animal, keeping him calm and focused in class. Kaleb's mother, Nichelle Drew, says before the family got the Labrador retriever, her son often slept 2 to 3 hours at night, ran away from home, and they weren't able to take him to places like grocery stores and restaurants.
"We were seeing such improvement with Kaleb and such growth with Kaleb and Chewey as a team that we didn't want anything to hinder that," says Drew. "We wanted it to be able to continue and for Kaleb just to be able to continue to experience life to the fullest. And I think that's what every parent wants for their child. As parent of a child with autism, it's something that I don't get to experience very often."
Attorneys for the Villa Grove school district argued the dog wasn't helping the child's development, and can be disruptive to other students and staff. Based on the testimony from school staff, Judge Freese noted problems in dealing with the dog at times. But he says the real problems were with a state statute that doesn't clearly define Chewey's role while accompanying Kaleb at school. Villa Grove schools attorney Brandon Wright says its legal team is still weighing its options, and could appeal the district's decision. He says a big problem lies with a state law that allows service animals in schools, but doesn't provide much guidance.
"When you have a student who is young and incapable of being the handler of a dog, what does that mean for the school in terms of its responsibility?," says Wright. "And this statute is silent on that and the judge recognized that conundrum for the school district." This case and a separate lawsuit involving an autistic boy in southwestern Illinois are the first challenges to the state's law allowing service animals in schools. Authorities in both school districts have said that the boys' needs must be balanced against those of other children who have allergies or fear the animals.