School board approves therapy animal policy

The Great Falls Public Schools board approved a new policy during their Sept. 9 meeting regarding the use of therapy animals in schools.

There was no public comment during the meeting.

The school board heard the proposed policy on first reading during their Aug. 19 meeting.

School officials said there have been some instances over the years where teachers and school personnel said they wished a policy had been in place to deal with the issue and they said during their Aug. 19 meeting that such a policy would provide guidance, set regulations and allow the district to have better control over the increased use of therapy animals.

In the proposed policy, “therapy dogs and other animals are family pets that are trained and registered through a certified therapy organization. They are only half of the therapy team. The handler is the other half. Therapy teams enter the school by invitation or prior approval. A therapy animal is not a service animal, and unlike a service animal, a therapy animal does not assist a person with a disability with activities of daily living, nor does it accompany a person with a disability at all times. Therapy animals do not have legal rights.”

A member of the public asked during the Aug. 19 meeting if there was a valid need for anyone to bring therapy animals to school and how the policy would be enforced.

Under the proposal, anyone wanting to bring a therapy animal to school would have to fill out a request form and meet criteria contained in the policy. The superintendent or a designee has to approve the request. The request must be renewed each school year or whenever a different therapy animal will be used.

During the Aug. 19 meeting, Kim Skornogoski, school board member, asked Superintendent Tom Moore whether he thought the policy would prevent people from abusing the use of therapy animals.

Moore said, “it will help us to have a written policy.”

Dan Manella, a GFPS parent, said he thought the policy was a good idea to be able to distinguish between service animals and therapy animals and to have rules in place.

Moore said there’s a significant difference between service and therapy animals and that there are laws governing service animals.

He said that teachers have effectively used therapy animals in some classrooms to address behavior issues and calm students down.

Teresa Schreiner, school board member, said she liked the policy in that it protects students and teachers who might want to use a therapy animals, but also those with allergies.

Schreiner said that was a concern to her since she has a severe allergy to dogs and it’s an issue that has come up in her own workplace in the past where animals were concerned.

Under the proposed policy, therapy animals wouldn’t be allowed to pose health or safety issues to students, employees or others at school and the owner must register the animal and provide documentation of the registration, certification and training of the animal, only allow the animal in areas that are authorized by school administrators, and provide a copy of an insurance policy that provides liability coverage for the therapy animal while on school property, among other requirements.

The full proposed policy is included in the Aug. 19 school board packet, which is available here.