With lawyerly caution temporarily muzzling their enthusiasm, school officials last week decided they aren’t ready to unleash assistance dogs in local classrooms just yet.
Given a host of uncertainties regarding legal liability and insurance coverage that arose during a lengthy Feb. 4 review, school committee members embraced Superintendent Amy Berdos’ suggestion to postpone a final vote on the so-called “assistance animal” policy.
“Based on this discussion, I agree,” Chairwoman Tina Belanger said. “We want to make sure we get it right and do the right thing.”
Initially presented in late January, the proposed policy seeks to provide a regulatory framework for future interactions involving assistance animals in Foxboro schools. The draft reviewed last week requires documentation that all vaccinations, licenses and therapeutic accreditations are up to date for any service animals on school property, and that both animal and handler are certified to work in an educational setting.
The issues of liability and insurance coverage were less straightforward, however.
According to school Business Manager William Yukna, legal liability for assistance animals on school property would rest solely with the dog’s owner, not the handler or the school department.
“Unless the town owns the dog, the town’s insurance company cannot insure the dog,” said Yukna, who researched the issue with the town’s insurance carrier.
That being the case, the animal’s owner should be required to carry a liability policy and provide the town certification of insurance, which Yukna described as common practice for third parties renting space in school buildings.
“That’s what covers them,” Yukna added, “not our own insurance policy.”
Such requirements presumably would be needed for privately-owned animals, but Belanger said programs common in other communities involve dogs attached to the local police department.
“We’re contemplating with this policy a scenario where we have an assistance animal that is owned by the town and living with one of our [school resource officers],” Belanger said.
Throughout the policy review, school board members took pains to wordsmith the draft, struggling with subtle distinctions for both clarity and legal liability.
“I’m more concerned there is something in the law that I don’t know about,” committee member Richard Pearson observed at one point.
Pearson, who helped craft the draft policy, confirmed that much of the text came from similar policies in Mansfield, Easton and Walpole schools.
On hand for the policy review session was Foxboro High senior Sara Scardocci, who was accompanied by her would-be school resource dog Grizz.
Scardocci explained she has been waiting for board members to adopt a formal policy in hopes of bringing Grizz into local classrooms as “a means of helping students cope with anxiety and mental health issues.”
Her interest in assistance animals was sharpened last year when researching an existing program in Walpole schools for a class project. Afterwards, Scardocci concluded that Foxboro students afflicted by mental health issues and related disorders could benefit both socially and academically from community resource dogs.
Scardocci said she has been working with the 7-month-old golden retriever since October in partnership with Golden Opportunities for Independence, a Walpole-based agency that breeds and trains resource dogs.
Grizz, who has his own Facebook page (@grizzlythegolden) and lives at home with Scardocci, returns to Golden Opportunities for ongoing training.
“We’re working on maintaining his composure and general obedience-type training so he’s calm and collected in any environment,” Scardocci explained.
According to the agency’s website, service dogs are typically assigned to a single handler for specific medical and/or mobility help. Therapy dogs are trained pets that visit schools, nursing homes or other facilities to provide comfort to many people.
Scardocci said that assistance dogs trained by Golden Opportunities to work in elder-care facilities are able to “smell” anxiety and/or depression among residents and also sense when they have managed to calm down.
“That’s one of the good things about golden retrievers,” she said. “They are able to think on their own.”
While school board members welcomed her suggestions, Scardocci and Grizz have been gaining of traction on their own.
Both were scheduled to attend a Feb. 12 meet and greet event with Foxboro Jaycees at the South Foxboro Community Center as part of a fund-raising campaign to support a program in local schools.
A Boston station also recently interviewed her about her work with Grizz.