When Kellsey McGuire and her service dog, Jasper, were denied access to a public school in Illinois in February 2014, a Catholic school welcomed them both with open arms.
Kellsey, 10, has had epileptic seizures since she was a toddler. She was on a waiting list for more than five years to get Jasper, a 4-year-old lab mix, who helps alert Kellsey’s family in the event of seizures.
The dog “is trained to go find help if she opens her eyes at night and starts to seize. He also knows how to brace when she is unsteady from med changes,” said Brandi McGuire, Kellsey’s mother. “Jasper can open doors and licks Kellsey’s hands when she is nervous or has anxiety. He saves her life in the event of a nighttime seizure. He is our furry angel.”
But this “furry angel” and Kellsey were kicked out of Sherrard Elementary School in Sherrard, Ill., Brandi McGuire told NCR. She said that while they were working to get Jasper trained through the Disability Assistance Dogs program, they met with Sherrard Elementary to work out the details. Everything seemed to be in place.
However, McGuire recounted, one of Kellsey’s teachers had a problem with the dog and wouldn’t let Kellsey into the school with Jasper. McGuire said they tried to keep Kellsey in class, but the administration told them she had to leave.
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The McGuires responded with a due process lawsuit against the Sherrard Board of Education in February 2014, followed by a federal Americans with Disabilities Act lawsuit in June 2014.
In December 2014, the independent hearing officer ruled in the McGuires’ favor on two counts: that denying Jasper access denied Kellsey her educational rights, and that a hostile environment was created for Kellsey.
The school appealed the decision in February 2015, stating that the independent hearing officer had not been impartial. The school offered the McGuires a settlement of $95,000 in September to drop both lawsuits.
“The cases have been resolved,” said Brandi McGuire. “We accepted a settlement that paid for Kellsey’s education through eighth grade since the public school denied her one. … I’m so happy that chapter is closed.”
During the lawsuits, Kellsey still needed to receive an education and she did, at Jordan Catholic School in Rock Island, Ill.
“Our church was the one place we knew we were always welcomed,” McGuire said.
The same day that Kellsey was denied access to Sherrard Elementary School, McGuire was asked to be a confirmation sponsor.
“As I was waiting, I was in [Jordan Catholic] school and as I looked up with tears in my eyes, overwhelmed by what was happening to my daughter, I saw the second-grade classroom,” McGuire said. “I think that was God’s way of showing me the way.”
The next day, McGuire contacted the school.
“When I called and asked to transfer [Kellsey] to Jordan, they were very welcoming. Then I mentioned my daughter had a disability and had an individualized education plan in her current school. They assured me they would help her anyway they could,” she said. “Then I mentioned she also had a service dog named Jasper. The first thing they said was ‘We can’t wait to meet him.’ ”
The school offered for Kellsey and Jasper to have a private meeting with her teacher and held an assembly for the entire school with service dog organization trainers.
Jordan Catholic principal Joan Leonard was not the administrator when Kellsey and Jasper were accepted into the school, but said everyone is glad they are there.
“Kellsey is a wonderful young girl and you don’t even know Jasper is around,” she said. “Everybody truly loves them both and their family and I’m glad we could accommodate Kellsey’s needs.”
Leonard said classmates respond very well and “Jasper is accepted as just a part of the class. They know he isn’t a pet, that he’s a working dog. They see Jasper as the help that Kellsey needs.”
Kellsey and her dog are so welcomed at Jordan Catholic, that Jasper was even included in the yearbook. He accompanies Kellsey to religious services, including Communion and confession, where McGuire said Kellsey confesses for the dog, as well.
“Kellsey loves her family at Jordan Catholic. She loves that everyone treats Jasper just as if he was another student,” said McGuire. “She feels included instead of excluded.”
That inclusion cuts down on Kellsey’s stress, which can exacerbate the seizures.
“I believe being closer to God has given her some peace, as well,” said McGuire. “She loves religion class. It’s her favorite class.”
McGuire said she has heard from Kellsey’s teachers at Sherrard.
“The teachers from the public school Kellsey attended still stay in contact with me and ask about Kellsey and Jasper often,” she said. “They were very saddened by this entire ordeal.”
[Elizabeth A. Elliott is an NCR Bertelsen intern. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.]