Finally, Justice for Jasper

Cala Smoldt/Staff Reporter

Colin and Brandi McGuire released this statement following the decision in the dispute with Sherrard School District Dec. 18, 2014:

"The McGuire family is very pleased with the Impartial Hearing Officer’s waell-reasoned and factually detailed ruling. The Impartial Hearing Officer found that Sherrard Community Unit School District #200 denied the McGuire’s daughter a Free and Appropriate Public Education by denying her right to bring Jasper with her to school and by creating a hostile environment for their daughter.

While the litigation process is likely not concluded, this is an important step toward achieving justice not only for their daughter and Jasper, but for all children dealing with disabilities who seek unfettered public access with service animals.

The McGuires are thankful to the community for their overwhelming outpouring of support which helped them through this trying and emotional time. The McGuires would also like to publicly thank all the individuals, professionals, certified teachers, and others who, against enormous pressure, testified in the Due Process hearing.

This matter is not fully resolved but this is a big first step and the McGuires intend to take the next steps necessary to seek reimbursement for the attorney’s fees associated with this Due Process proceeding."

An Impartial Hearing Officer, Michael Risen, for the Illinois State Board of Education handed down a decision in the Due Process Hearing between Sherrard CUSD #200 and Colin and Brandi McGuire. The McGuire's were awarded tuition reimbursement for the remainder of the 2013-14 school year and all of 2014-15 school year. They were also awarded travel costs between home and Jordan Catholic School in Rock Island. Sherrard School District was ordered to convene an IEP (Individualized Education Program) team to develop an IEP to meet 9 year old Kellsey's other health impairment needs and ordered the team to decide how to include the student's service dog in the IEP.

The McGuire's young daughter, Kellsey McGuire suffers from seizures and requires a service dog, Jasper, to notify them before one might occur, allowing them to render life saving methods. Brandi McGuire notified her school, Sherrard Elementary, in December 2013 that Kellsey will begin bringing a service dog. The school welcomed him with open arms, even holding an assembly to educate students and staff on how to respond to Jasper.

It wasn't long until a conflict arose between the art teacher, Ms. Hillary Plog, and the service dog, Jasper. Jasper was trained by DAD (Disability Assistance Dogs). Plog also trains service dogs, unassociated with that organization. Legal documents say, "...Hillary Plog's behaviors were more consistent with a persistent effort to prove her belief of Jasper's perceived lack of training by sending emails and documents to her superiors that demonstrated what (she) believed to be the law governing service animals."

Mrs. McGuire was told by Principal Victoria Connelly repeatedly that she could not send Jasper to school with Kellsey. Due to frequent high stress and anxiety situations Kellsey continued to have seizures as a direct result. The McGuire's sought measures to remedy the situation by removing Kellsey from Hillary Plog's, once per week art class. The conflict between the art teacher and administration escalated causing the McGuire's to remove Kellsey entirely from Sherrard School District. She began attending Jordan Catholic School, where Kellsey and Jasper have both attended with no issues to date.

In closed hearings the Impartial Hearing Officer (IHO) with the Illinois State Board of Education, listened to a cast of witnesses including several employees of Sherrard School District, family friends, bystanders, Superintendent Samuel Light, and Hillary Plog, identified as District Music Teacher (though not with Sherrard). Due process hearings are an administrative remedy available to parents of children, according to attorney for the McGuire's, John Doak said, "(the) State Board of Education assigns an impartial hearing officer. Because it's such a highly specialized and technical area, they want somebody, the hearing officer, to have a very good understanding and familiarity with those issues. It's not like a court system, (there are) relaxed rules so the best interest of the child is what is paramount."

Court documents state that, "after considering the presented testimony and reviewed documents presented as the evidence at hearing, as well as the arguments of both parties, the IHO made these Findings of Fact," some of which include:

During the assembly, Jan. 13, intended to welcome Jasper, the mother and other staff members observed Plog texting during the assembly. Principal Connelly testified that Plog informed her that she had called the Department of Justice to inform them of the violations that she believed occurred with jasper during the assembly.

The incidents began Jan. 22, the first full day Jasper attended school with Kellsey, without her mother present. During the final period of the day Kellsey and Jasper went to art class. The art teacher, Plog, opened the door to the classroom suddenly and the door hit the wall loudly and Jasper barked, causing Plog's service dog in the classroom to bark. The student successfully redirected Jasper and he sat as directed while Plog's service dog continued to bark. As a result of the continued barking from Plog's service dog, a paraprofessional, Cheryl Schulte, escorted Kellsey and Jasper back to the 2nd grade classroom. At this point Plog commented within earshot of the student, "That's no way a service dog is supposed to act." Following this encounter, Kellsey was upset that Plog did not want her and Jasper in art class as a result of this incident. Later the same day, Jasper alerted her parents while at home that Kellsey was experiencing a seizure in her bedroom.

Jan. 23 The Principal received an email from Brandi McGuire detailing their decision to withhold Kellsey and Jasper from Plog's art class. The Principal testified the parent informed her of the parent's belief that Plog was trying to "ruin" Jasper because she disliked DAD and believed that DAD performed poorly when providing trained service dogs. Principal Connelly confirmed that Plog had expressed her dislike of DAD and that Plog believed that her own service dog organization did a much better job of training than DAD.

After several meetings going back and forth about whether or not Kellsey can have Jasper at Sherrard, Principal Connelly called the McGuire's to inform them of her decision to not allow Kellsey and Jasper to attend school the next day. The Principal explained that Plog indicated she would call the police if the student and Jasper attended school again and the Principal wanted to avoid that confrontation. Additionally, the Principal indicated to Kellsey's second grade teacher that the Principal's reason for banning Jasper was, "I cannot have an employee of mine feeling unsafe."

Measures are outlined in the documents showing that the administration tried to avoid any confrontations with Plog. The Principal escorted Kellsey and Jasper to the far end entrance of the school. As a result, the Principal concluded that Plog intended to cause a confrontation between Jasper and herself and the Principal intended to avoid any confrontations. The Principal concluded that Plog had made up her mind from the day of the first assembly with DAD personnel that Jasper (having been trained by DAD) failed to meet service dog standards.

IHO, Risen notes he found testimony of Plog less than credible. Plog wrote, "I requested that she make the decision to remove the dog based on the Illinois and National laws." Yet, under oath, Plog responded three separate times to questions that probed if she ever asked to have the dog removed and she responded, "No" to each question.

According to documents, "The record of HP's (Hillary Plog) actions recorded both in the referenced prepared statements of events, numerous emails, and testimony regarding Plog's actions during the course of the problems experienced by the student and Jasper all support that Plog believed that Jasper failed to be properly trained.... Finally, Plog claimed she was afraid of Jasper even though she prided herself as a dog trainer, including training German Shepherds in Schutzhund, the German guard dog training. These inconsistencies with Plog's documented behaviors and documented statements pose serious questions as to the reliability of any of Plog's testimony."

More incidents are mentioned that reportedly caused Kellsey's seizures. Feb. 14, Principal Connelly resigned her position as Principal of Sherrard Elementary School because she believed she failed the student, "It's my job as the Principal to make things work, solve problems, keep my children safe. I felt very badly that obviously we hadn't made it work. I hadn't made it work." Further, Connelly testified that the environment at the school had two camps, one supporting Plog, and one supporting Kellsey and Jasper.

May 31, Hillary Plog met with staff to share her version and feelings regarding the incidents with Kellsey and Jasper. That's when she informed them she had resigned her position as a teacher in the Sherrard School District. On their website, Wood Intermediate School in Davenport, Iowa, names Hillary Plog as a new art teacher for this School year (2014).

It is summarized in court documents that Sherrard School District was required to convene an IEP (Individualized Education Program) meeting when requested by parents and or when a parent provides new information. The parent did both, providing new information, December 2013 and requesting an IEP in January of 2014. Had the District met this obligation when first informed of Jasper's pending arrival, much, if not all the conflict that developed in January and February may have been avoided.

Superintendent Samuel Light stated that he saw no reason to develop and adopt a policy in compliance with Illinois Statutes regarding both having a policy on service dogs, as well as, revising such policies when appropriate, despite all of the controversy the District experienced. IHO Risen concluded that this attitude demonstrates a continuation of unreasonableness and the indifference previously demonstrated by the administrators of the District.

IHO Michael Risen concluded that the administration of Sherrard behaved indifferently, unreasonably, and failed to take actions consistent with the requirements of Illinois Statutes and the courts..... the evidence supports the Parent's argument that the harassment resulted in such severe or pervasive environment that it altered the condition of the student's education. The evidence supports the parent's argument that, "(the student's) opportunity for an appropriate education was compromised. (The student) was isolated from other students and her friends when she was forced to go through alternate doors and hide out in classrooms in order to avoid her bully. (The student) also missed school to attend a meeting with the Superintendent. There was also testimony that, despite feeling more confident and independent with the arrival of Jasper, (The student) began feeling fearful and dependent upon her aide...."

In the McGuire's closing brief, they also sought compensation for tuition at Jordan Catholic for during the 2015-19 school years. These years were not part of the requested relief when the issues and proposed relief were finalized during the July 28 Pre-Hearing conference and thus, the IHO denied that portion of the parent's request.

(Decisions rendered by IHOs are legally binding upon parties in the dispute).

Sherrard School District was ordered to reimburse the McGuire's for the tuition costs for the remainder of the 2013-14 school years totaling, $1,177.16, and the 2014-15 school year in the amount of $1,050. Payment must be made directly to Jordan Catholic School the remaining balance of the student's tuition for the 2014-15 school year in monthly installments of $612.50 each month beginning March 1, 2015 - June 1. They are also required to cover the cost of transportation amounting to $1,203.45 based on the IRS reimbursement rate of .565 cents per mile to take Kellsey to and from school. The school district was also ordered to convene an IEP team (Individualized Education Plan) to include current representatives from Jordan Catholic School where they will develop a plan for Kellsey providing her with specialized services and to include her service dog, Jasper, no later than May 16, 2015. For every amount owed, and the team required, the district must send copies and proof to the Due Process Coordinator in Springfield.