In fight over boy?s service dog, Broward school board is brought to heel | The Miami Herald The Miami Herald
Stevie is a good dog. He doesn’t eat from the table or have accidents in the house. And he never pulls on his leash.
The white-and-tan Staffordshire terrier also has a special talent: He alerts caregivers when his little boy, Anthony Merchante, is going to have a seizure or has trouble breathing.
Anthony’s mother, Monica Alboniga, tried for two years to persuade the Broward County School Board to permit Stevie, a trained service animal, to accompany the 7-year-old on campus. But school administrators repeatedly said Stevie didn’t belong at school. And they hoped that a Fort Lauderdale federal judge would agree with them.
Instead they got a scolding. Last week, U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom ruled that Stevie should be allowed to join his human friend at Nob Hill Elementary — and without a series of requirements the school district had tacked on.
Stevie, Alboniga said, “has saved Anthony’s life. I feel completely safe every time he is with the dog, because I know the dog will look for help.”
As the lawsuit progressed in federal court, the school board allowed Stevie to go to school every day, but administrators continued to fight the case.
“The district has always permitted the service dog at the school,” said the district’s spokeswoman, Tracy Clark. Alboniga “pursued the lawsuit as the parties [the district and the plaintiff] differ somewhat in the interpretation of the federal regulations governing service animals. The district’s legal department is reviewing and analyzing the order.”
Had the district won, Alboniga’s lawyer said, 4-year-old Stevie almost certainly would have been expelled.
Anthony suffers from a host of serious disabilities: He has cerebral palsy, spastic paralysis, a seizure disorder, and he cannot speak. To get around, he depends on a wheelchair, to which Stevie is tethered most of the time.
Alboniga, 37, who is raising her son alone, paid to obtain and train a dog up to the specifications of Assistance Dog International Standards, records say. Stevie can aid caregivers in a variety of ways: He can step onto Anthony’s wheelchair and lay across the boy’s lap; once there, the dog is trained to help stabilize Anthony’s head so his airway isn’t impeded.
“Stevie was also trained to ‘tell’ or ‘alert’ human responders in the event that [Anthony] was experiencing a medical crisis,” Bloom wrote. The dog can jump on a sensor mat that activates an alarm, or bark to get the attention of caregivers. He also wears a red service dog vest that holds medical supplies, as well as detailed instructions on how to respond to medical emergencies.
“Stevie lets me know when he has seizures or problems breathing. He pushes me toward Anthony. He barks,” Alboniga said. “When Anthony is having convulsions, he starts barking and goes looking for us. Then he goes back to Anthony and stays with him.”
At home in Sunrise, Stevie is also a house pet, although he isn’t all that interested in Anthony’s baby sister, Mariangel, a 5-month-old, because he seems to intuitively understand that Anthony is his full-time job. “He loves Anthony,” Alboniga said. “And Anthony loves Stevie, too.”