WESTFIELD, NJ — “I am here because unfortunately, the Public Service Department at the Westfield School District for the past three years has made my life and my daughter’s life a living hell,” said Westfield parent Fraidy Reiss to the Westfield Board of Education at Tuesday's meeting.
According to Reiss, her 12th grade daughter Avigail and her new service dog in training, Logan, took the bus to school on Tuesday, Jan. 2. That day, Reiss was contacted by the district and told that she needed to submit appropriate documentation in order for the dog to accompany her daughter at school and on the bus. Reiss said that she submitted everything required by law after being notified.
The following morning, after trying to board the bus, Reiss said her daughter was told that she could not come on the bus with Logan because the bus driver had not yet received the required paperwork from the district. Reiss returned with her daughter and boarded the bus herself.
“I said, ‘Well I am not getting off the bus with my daughter and her service dog. She has every right to go to school even though she has a disability. You’re not allowed to deny her,’” Reiss said. “After about a half hour showdown, the bus driver called the police.”
According to Reiss, Westfield Police came to her home and removed her daughter and her service dog from the bus after saying that she was being unreasonable.
“The entire situation took an hour and a half,” Reiss said in an earlier interview, adding that a separate bus was sent to pick up the other children who had been waiting.
The bus company, Amaker & Porterfield, had no comment following the incident and directed questions to the Westfield School District.
Although Avigail lives in the Westfield School District, because of her disability, she is currently in an out-of-district placement at a private school that is paid for by the district. Reiss said that a service animal was included in her daughter’s Individualized Education Program and that it should not have been a surprise.
“They should have known about this dog; he was in her IEP,” said Reiss in an earlier interview. “I was keeping them apprised.”
While the board of education agreed that the dog had been discussed in previous meetings, they said that there was a lack of communication leading up to the day the dog actually showed up in the school.
“The circumstances under which we weren’t able to allow a dog on the bus were legitimate and valid,” said BOE President Gretchan Ohlig. “We have an obligation to all the students, as does the bus company, that ride that bus.”
Ohlig went on to explain that following the incident, there was a snow day, but when school reopened on Friday, the service dog was permitted to ride the bus.
“The very next possible day we were good to go. And so I think the characterization that we some how tried to prevent her from using her service dog is not fair and not accurate,” Ohlig said.
“There wasn’t a dog, until there was a dog,” said Ohlig. “We didn’t know about the dog until the dog showed up to get on the bus.”
Westfield School Superintendent Dr. Margaret Dolan also acknowledged that there was a discussion of a dog in May, adding that a conversation about a “hypothetical” dog is not enough to put policies in place for a child to arrive at school with a dog.
“You couldn’t get a hypothetical license, truly,” Dolan said. “So once there was a dog and you needed to get a license and you needed to get the information from the veterinarian, it would have been helpful to know that before the dog was literally at the bus stop.”
Dolan went on to remind the public that the district has a history of supporting service animals and currently has a student in the school system with a service animal. Similar comments were provided by Dr. Michael Weissman, assistant superintendent of pupil personnel services.
“In the most recent situation, however, documentation was not provided in sufficient time for the district or the Union County Educational Services Commission (which provides busing) to legally accept the service animal in school or on the bus,” Weissman explained in an email on Jan. 16.
“I’m sorry that it wasn’t perfect in the beginning, but you can’t arrive with an animal at a bus stop that’s picking up other children. You wouldn’t arrive with a child who’s not on the bus list and you wouldn’t arrive with an animal who’s not on the bus list. We need some time, just to verify that,” Dolan said.
During her comments, Reiss asked for an apology for her daughter, urged policy clarification and requested that the district reimburse her for $9,000 in legal fees. Reiss said that the district told her to hire an attorney on two separate occasions, first to get approval for out of district placement and second for the service dog.
Ohlig spoke directly to Avigail at Tuesday’s meeting.
“I don’t think that there’s anyone in this district who won’t be willing to look you in the eye and tell you that you are absolutely entitled to have the same education that every other student in this district gets. And if you felt otherwise, then I apologize for that,” she said. “Our policy is pretty clear; we require those two forms of documentation and my understanding is that it wasn’t provided the very first day that she showed up with the dog on the bus.”
Avigail spoke during the public comments portion of the meeting and said that she felt she was put in this position because her disability is not easily identified.
“If I was blind, they would have probably not have done that. But because you can't see my disability, they were perfectly okay with brushing it off their shoulder,” she said. “It's not fair to take someone, as a student, and force them off a bus so that they can't go to school in the morning."
Ohlig provided a second apology and said that she was very sorry that Avigail was put in that position.
After the BOE meeting was adjourned, Reiss said that she was not satisfied with that apology and may consider additional action.
The next Board of Education meeting is Tuesday, Feb. 27.