The small crowd that gathers in the parking lot of the Douglas County courthouse defies the November nip of the air and the wild winds that swirl around them. No one notices that the late afternoon sun is sinking slowly from sight or that cars are disappearing quickly from Tuscola’s idyllic streets.
Reporters, cameramen and photographers are engrossed in a 6-year-old named Kaleb Drew, who bounces around them, sporting one of his favorite Iron Man t-shirts and an endless supply of energy. Onlookers are equally enthralled by Kaleb’s sidekick, a 2-year-old yellow Labrador retriever named Chewey, who’s connected to the boy by a 5-foot red tether.
“Take a picture,” Kaleb requests. “Cheese!” His mom, Nichelle, was initially worried about how her son would react to the lights and cameras, but it appears that Kaleb has caught on to his family’s excitement.
Moments earlier, county judge Chris Freese decided the outcome of a year-long battle between the Drews and the Villa Grove Community Unit School District, located in Villa Grove, a small town near Champaign. Kaleb, a first-grader who has autism with speech and developmental delays, and Chewey, his trained service animal, would be allowed to attend school together despite the school’s protests.
Nichelle and her husband, Brad, concerned about Kaleb’s safety and difficulty at home and at school, first informed Villa Grove Elementary School last year of their decision to get an autism service animal. The school district objected to the plan, citing concerns for other students, and refused to let Kaleb take Chewey to school this past spring and summer [see “School bars autistic child and his service dog,” July 22].
The Nov. 10 decision means more than a continued education for Kaleb and Chewey — it’s also the first time the state’s law involving service animals has been challenged in court. Now that the pair has been allowed to go to school, they could set a precedent for other students with disabilities and their service dogs in Illinois.
“It has been emotional,” Nichelle tells a reporter after the ruling. “Just because we were seeing such improvement with Kaleb and such growth with Kaleb and Chewey as a team.
“We wanted it to continue, and for Kaleb to continue to experience life to the fullest. That’s what every parent wants for their child. As a parent of a child with autism, it’s something that I don’t experience very often. Now with Chewey, we’re able to do that.”
Moms know best when it comes to describing their children.
“He’s obsessed with superheroes,” Nichelle says. “He smiles. He loves to be hugged. That’s Kaleb. He’s very energetic.”
As a kindergartner last year, Kaleb joined other students in a general education classroom. During the school day, he’d receive assistance from a one-on-one aide, as well as help from speech and occupational therapists. Outside of school, he’d also get extra speech therapy and visit other specialists.
But, Nichelle says, he wasn’t progressing. Like many children with autism, Kaleb didn’t have a sense of danger. He didn’t like for his parents to hold his hand, so he’d sometimes break free and run out in front of moving vehicles. He didn’t sleep more than two or three hours, and more than once he left the house in the middle of the night.
Kaleb was also having trouble transitioning from one place to another, like from home to school. Not only were they always late, Nichelle says, but she’d have to carry him into class kicking and screaming.
Two years ago Nichelle’s mother-in-law gave her a Family Circle article that highlighted the use of autism service animals. Nichelle immediately began contacting organizations and talking to other families who had placed these dogs in their homes.
The Drews told the Villa Grove school district in May 2008 that they’d begun the application process with Autism Service Dogs of America, a nonprofit organization based in Oregon that provides specially trained Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers or golden/Lab mixes to children with autism and their families. The family was approved the next month and began working with the community to raise the needed $13,500.
Kati Witko, the ASDA service dog trainer, testified at last week’s trial that she’s overseen 15-20 service dog placements. As with the organization’s other dogs, ASDA began training Chewey early — at seven weeks old — in schools and in the community.
“The point is to get him very comfortable,” she said, “and interacting and learning how to properly respond to students.”
Over the next few months, Chewey mastered 30 different commands. He was trained to sit and heel, but he also learned “downstay” and “deep pressure.” These two commands, Witko explained, are key to grounding children with autism and keeping them safe.
In the downstay position, the service dog lies on the floor and remains calm to help the autistic child relax and focus. Service dogs also execute deep pressure to comfort the autistic child, especially when he or she is frustrated or upset, by pressing against the child with their head, paws and bodies.
Chewey was 18 months old and nearly finished with training when Nichelle flew to Oregon to meet and work with him in May. After she completed a written exam and a physical test to show that she could operate as Chewey’s primary handler, Nichelle took the service dog home to Villa Grove. Two weeks later, Witko traveled from Oregon to the Drews’ home to begin teaching Kaleb and Chewey how to work as a team.
Back in November 2008, the Drews had asked to meet with the school district to include Chewey in Kaleb’s individualized education program (IEP), which directs his special education and related services as required by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act. The school district denied their request.
Villa Grove superintendent Dr. Steven Poznic later explained to Illinois Times that district officials weren’t convinced that Chewey could function as a service animal. He also expressed fears that the dog would hinder the entire classroom’s education.
“We care about all of our students at Villa Grove schools,” Poznic said. “We want to see all of them be successful.”
The school district stuck by its decision and refused to let Kaleb bring Chewey to the final three days of his kindergarten year. Witko, who routinely visits schools to help ease the transition for the child and their new service dog, was also denied access.
After Villa Grove Elementary School barred the pair from starting Kaleb’s extended school year program on July 1 — even though his IEP determined that he needed the summer program to maintain academic and functional skills — the Drews pursued court action.
On July 9 they filed a complaint against the Villa Grove Community Unit School District #302 Board of Education and Poznic and requested a temporary restraining order to allow Kaleb to attend school with Chewey.
“Kaleb spends a lot of his day in the school setting, away from home,” Nichelle says about the decision to fight Villa Grove. “If Kaleb was spending that time without Chewey, that bond would be affected and the role he plays in Kaleb’s life would be affected.”
Kaleb and Chewey were allowed to attend summer school together after Freese granted a 10-day restraining order on July 14. The judge eventually extended the restraining order until the final trial on Nov. 10, so Kaleb and Chewey could begin first grade together.
Nichelle took the stand last week and described the changes she’s seen in her son since Chewey came into their lives.
Kaleb and Chewey are connected constantly by a tether that loops around Kaleb’s waist. When Nichelle commands Chewey into a downstay, the dog keeps Kaleb from running away. At the same time, Nichelle explained, Kaleb also has more independence because he can walk freely within five feet of Chewey or hang on to the handle on the dog’s service vest.
Kaleb has accepted the tether system and no longer fights when he’s asked to leave the house.
“He sits by Chewey, we place Chewey’s tether around his waist and we’re up and out the door,” Nichelle said. “Kaleb is able to go everywhere with our family now. We don’t have to find a babysitter or leave him with grandparents.”
When Kaleb does have behavioral problems, Nichelle directs Chewey to apply deep pressure. Kaleb then re-centers himself, she says, and comes out of the behavior.
Chewey also provides Kaleb with deep pressure throughout the night, helping him sleep six to eight hours. With adequate rest, Nichelle said, her son’s focus at school has improved. A bonus, she adds, is that Chewey barks and blocks the door if Kaleb gets out of bed at night.
Brandon Wright, the attorney for the Villa Grove school district, argued in court that school officials haven’t seen Chewey exhibit any of these benefits.
Aimee Reardon, Kaleb’s one-on-one aide, and Beth Wiessing, his speech pathologist, have each acted as Chewey’s handler at school and testified that he doesn’t always respond to commands and seems to sleep most of the day. The service dog also causes problems in the classroom by sniffing other students or by getting up on his own, they said.
“The dog is not a service dog,” Wright said. “The dog’s training does not reflect the appropriate behaviors. There is a consistent need to repeat commands, and he exhibits off-task behaviors and responds to other people.”
Wright added that Kaleb shouldn’t be allowed to attend school with Chewey since the boy can’t command the service dog on his own. Instead, he said, the school district is burdened with the responsibility.
The Drews’ attorney, Margie Wakelin, who works as a staff attorney for Equip for Equality, a nonprofit organization based in Chicago that advocates for people with disabilities, contended that Chewey fits the definition of a service animal under the state statute.
According to the Illinois School Code, “service animals such as guide dogs, signal dogs or any other animal individually trained to perform tasks for the benefit of a student with a disability shall be permitted to accompany that student at all school functions, whether in or outside the classroom.”
Chewey received one-on-one training from ASDA in homes, schools and communities, Wakelin said. The service dog learned to stabilize Kaleb, apply deep pressure and facilitate transitions.
“Kaleb is benefiting from the tasks Chewey is providing,” Wakelin said. “He sleeps through the night, he gets to school on time and without tantrums and he can go places in the community.”
Wakelin added that Chewey’s problems at school result from school officials’ inexperience and their failure to ask the Drews for help with the service dog.
Freese announced during his ruling that the case between the Drews and the Villa Grove school district was “not even a close case.” The Drews clearly showed, he said, that Chewey was individually trained for a student with a disability.
“You can’t keep the dog out based on how the school code is written,” Freese told the school district.
The judge did acknowledge that the one-sentence statute was poorly written by the state legislature. It doesn’t require that the service dog’s tasks be performed at school or at the command of the handler — offering no support to schools in these types of situations, he said.
Wright says the school district could appeal the judge’s decision.
Standing in the parking lot outside of the Douglas County courthouse, Nichelle can’t stop smiling. She’s relieved and overjoyed about what the day’s decision means for her family.
“This is amazing for Kaleb’s future,” Nichelle says. “As Kaleb grows and his and Chewey’s bond grows stronger, we’ll see even more improvements. We’ll see even more of Chewey’s ability to be able to react and respond to Kaleb’s behavioral incidents. It’ll just become second-hand to both of them.
“And eventually, when the opportunity is there for Kaleb, his safety is not an issue anymore, Kaleb will be able to be the handler and he will have full independence.”
Contact Amanda Robert at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check out Second service dog case pending for more info on a similar court case