On October 25, 2018, the Minister of Education introduced Bill 48, Safe and Supportive Classrooms Act, 2018. Most of the media coverage of Bill 48 has focused on the proposed amendments that would expand the definition of sexual abuse and require mandatory revocation of educators’ certificates for any acts of sexual abuse.
Bill 48, however, also contains proposed amendments to the Education Act that would authorize the Minister of Education to establish policies and guidelines respecting service animals in schools. School boards would be required to follow these guidelines and to create their own policies to support students with special needs who require service animals by September 2019.
Current Uncertainty in the Law
Service dogs are used by both children and adults for many reasons. While some service animals assist blind and visually impaired individuals, other service animals alert people to symptoms of certain medical conditions, provide support to individuals who use wheelchairs, and provide support to people with autism and other mental health related needs. Service dogs can assist students in gaining meaningful access to education.
While the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005 sets out a framework for the use of service dogs by individuals with disabilities and the Blind Persons’ Rights Act sets out a framework for the use of guide dogs for individuals who are blind or have low vision, there is currently no legislation in Ontario that addresses the use of service animals in schools.
Individual school boards are currently at liberty to develop their own policies and processes for managing service animal requests; 39 of 72 school boards in Ontario currently have specific policies in place to address service animals in schools. The amendments in Bill 48 are intended to provide a uniform approach to the use of service animals in schools.
Bill 48 is also intended to establish what qualifications, if any, should be required of service dogs in order to ensure their presence in school environments is safe and effective.
Besides the very specific qualifications required for guide dogs outlined in the Blind Persons’ Rights Act, Ontario has not yet developed criteria for the certification of service dogs used by individuals for reasons other than blindness.
The Integrated Accessibility Standards under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act states that an animal is considered a “service animal” if (a) it is readily identified as one through a vest or harness, or (b) its owner provides documentation by a health professional conferring their requirement of the animal for reasons relating to a disability. This potentially could result in the presence of untrained animals in classrooms and schoolyards.
While British Columbia, Alberta, and Nova Scotia have all introduced legislation regulating the certification of service dogs, Ontario has yet to follow suit. The only prior attempts to regulate service dogs resulted in two failed private members bills in 2016.
School boards therefore have wide discretion in deciding which dogs are safe to admit into the school environment. The current gap in the law creates uncertainty, not only for parents seeking to acquire a suitable animal for their child with special needs, but also for educators attempting to provide reasonable accommodation of a student with a disability and undue hardship caused by admitting an animal to school.
Contents of Guidelines Unknown
The contents of the proposed guidelines is not presently known. Mr. Toby Barrett, Member of Provincial Parliament for Haldimand-Norfolk, has confirmed that Bill 48 is mainly intended to address service dogs, and not exotic animals like snakes.
According to Minister of Education Lisa Thomson, Bill 48 is intended to introduce consistency across the province as “families of students with special needs deserve a clear and transparent process for requesting that service animals be able to accompany their children, no matter where they live”. It is unclear whether the proposed guidelines and policies will address concerns regarding service dog training and certification.
The Ministry should consult with school boards in order to develop guidelines that balance any undue hardship caused by admitting animals into schools with the reasonable accommodation of students with special needs.
As of March 15, 2019, Bill 48 has been sent to third reading. We will continue to monitor the progress of Bill 48 and the development of any guidelines applicable to school boards.