TAMPA — A disabled kindergarten student in Apollo Beach soon might have a service dog accompany her to class, a possible first for the Hillsborough County school district.
Laura Tobia, 6, has mitochondrial disorder, a condition that causes her energy to be depleted and affects her muscle coordination, strength and control.
Elsa, a 60-pound German shepherd puppy, is being trained to walk beside her, help her up when she falls and retrieve items that she drops. "There are so many things that this dog can do for her," said her father, Scott Tobia.
But getting the dog into class at Doby Elementary School hasn't been easy, and Tobia said there was a disagreement with school officials on Thursday over how to move forward.
He said he was ordered to stop bringing the dog to and from campus, which he has been doing to get Elsa used to the routine. He brought the dog at dismissal time anyway and wondered if he would be arrested.
He was not. Instead, Tobia and school officials had an impromptu conference, with Elsa in tow.
District spokesman Stephen Hegarty said he knows of no other child who has a service dog at school in Hillsborough. Beyond that, he could not comment on the case, he said, citing student confidentiality laws.
The issue of service animals at school has been the subject of some lawsuits around the country, including a case last year that was decided in favor of a Palm Beach State College student.
But when it comes to younger children, even people who use dogs do not necessarily think they belong in the classroom.
"I would have some questions," said Toni Eames, president of the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners.
"My first question would be, Who is going to take care of the dog? A dog is a dog. In a kindergarten class, with a lot of children playing and screaming, you would need to have some adult supervision."
Tobia said his daughter's classroom aide indicated she would be happy to get training and care for the dog.
Tobia said Laura is entitled to the dog for two reasons. First, federal law makes it illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities, including when it comes to government services such as public schools.
Second, the service dog is mentioned in Laura's "Individual Educational Plan" or IEP, the document that governs services given to students with disabilities.
But while the dog is described in the "Additional Comments" portion of the report, use of the dog is not included in the IEP Team recommendations.
Tobia believes the document was written that way because the district is not providing the dog; he is. He said the dog has been discussed at monthly conferences on Laura's progress, with no resistance from the IEP team.
This isn't the first time Tobia has argued forcefully with the district on behalf of his daughter.
Getting her into kindergarten was difficult because, although her therapy appointments are generally in the Brandon area, the district wanted to assign her to a school in Ruskin.
Last year there were contentious IEP meetings. Tobia said he used to schedule them at 8 a.m. because they lasted all day.
Things are going much better this year, Laura's second in kindergarten, Tobia said. "Everything has been so easy," he said, which made it surprising when he was told to stop bringing the dog.
He said he and school officials worked out an arrangement Thursday afternoon: Tobia can continue to walk Elsa to and from school with Laura to help the dog get used to the campus.
In a couple of weeks, he said, he plans to start bringing Elsa and her trainer into Laura's class.
He said his daughter is excited about having the dog, as it will give her more independence. And she's been told Elsa is not there as a playmate.
"She understands that the dog is working," he said.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]