Ole Miss banned a PTSD service dog from the classroom; now, advocates are fighting back
The key forces behind a law that allows PTSD service dogs in public spaces say they’re going to fight for a University of Mississippi student whose dog was recently banned from the classroom.
The University of Mississippi last week banned a service dog from classrooms for allegedly disruptive behavior but the dog’s handler, the trainer and the director of the Mississippi chapter of the Wounded Warriors are vowing to fight back.
The student handler, an Ole Miss freshman who asked not to be identified because of her condition, said she relies on her brown Labrador, Violet, for comfort. She said university personnel told her Violet was no longer welcome in the classroom because she was “whining excessively” and wandering around the classroom, both claims she disputes.
Stacey Reycraft, the university’s director of Student Disability Services, said she couldn’t comment on the case because of student confidentiality.
The dog’s trainer, Jeff McCall, said he finds the accusations hard to believe since Violet has been a service dog companion before and without complaint, for four months while the Ole Miss student was in high school.
McCall said that after reaching out to Reycraft he is more frustrated that the university will not allow him the chance to monitor Violet himself to see if corrective measures might be taken.
“I’m not opposed to the possibility the dog may have been a disruption, but the way they are handling this leaves a lot to be desired. I would have figured they’d be interested in accommodating disabled students; this seems very disciplinarian, especially for someone who suffers from PTSD,” he said.
McCall is the owner of The International K9 Foundation, a Summit-based dog training center. He, along with Nikki Best, an Iraq War veteran and PTSD sufferer, helped draft the amendments to House Bill 944, which became law over the summer. The new law allows service dogs to accompany military personnel who suffer from PTSD.
Although the law doesn’t cover civilians with PTSD, the effect of the condition on the handler is no different, Best said.
“These dogs aren’t just to have a dog … For Ole Miss to not allow this lady to have her service dog, it could seriously damage her psyche and put her in the hospital,” she said.
PTSD is defined as an anxiety disorder that occurs following the experience of a frightening, distressing or traumatic event or from witnessing a traumatic event. The Ole Miss student would not talk about what caused her PTSD.
A support animal or service animal is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental disability.
The National Center for PTSD says about seven or eight of every 100 people will have PTSD at some point in their lives. About 8 million adults have PTSD during a given year, the center says.
Cheryl Bruce, director of the Mississippi chapter of Wounded Warriors, said she stands behind McCall’s credentials as a dog trainer and dogs that have undergone service training in general.
“You could walk these dogs into a library, and there will be no problems. That’s how well trained they are. I know Jeff and I know what he puts these dogs through so I find it hard to believe there’d be an issue with the dog,” Bruce said.
Bruce said her experience follows the conclusions of multiple studies on service dogs and PTSD, which apply to all PTSD sufferers, soldier and civilian alike.
The Department of Veterans Affairs, for instance, says owning a dog can lift moods, help with stress and help people feel better by providing companionship.
Evidence-based treatment for PTSD — such as having a service dog — helps people do things they have been avoiding because of their PTSD, such as standing close to a stranger or going into a building without scanning it for danger first, according to Veterans Affairs.
Regardless of state law, McCall said he is looking into whether the ban could be in violation of service animal requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which is under the U.S. Department of Justice.
The ADA requires some proof the dog is out of control and the handler does not take action to control it, or the dog is not housebroken. Bruce said she expects the university to have that documentation, given the harsh effect the separation of Violet from her handler might have on her.
Best said she suspects that since PTSD “is invisible,” some university staff may not see the same need for a service dog as others with more visible disabilities. If the handler were a military veteran, such a ban would be against the newly amended law.
Violet’s handler said she decided to attend Ole Miss in part because they were receptive to her and Violet, even making a university ID for the service dog during the admissions process. Now, she is uncertain if she’ll even be able to make it to class and finish out the school year.
“I really don’t know what I’m going to do. We’re a team,” she said of Violet.
According to the university’s Animal Assistance policy, the university may restrict or exclude an assistance animal if:
- It is out of control and effective action cannot control it or is not taken to control it
- Its size is prohibitive in relation to the size of the residence hall
- It is not housebroken
- It poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others that cannot be reduced or eliminated by reasonable modifications. An animal with a history of biting or aggression may be considered to pose such a threat
- Its presence fundamentally alters the nature of programs, services, or activities in student housing
- Other reasons as may be determined.
Ole Miss’ Office of the Vice Chancellor for University Relations released a statement in response to the article.
“The University of Mississippi recognizes the importance of service animals to individuals with disabilities, and we welcome trained service animals on our campus as a reasonable accommodation. While federal law prohibits us from commenting on a specific student’s accommodations, we view the matters described in the Clarion-Ledger story seriously and are taking a closer look at them,” the statement reads.