MCMINN AND BLOUNT COUNTIES’ BOARDS OF EDUCATION IMPLEMENT ILLEGAL POLICIES REGARDING THE USE OF SERVICE ANIMALS—TENNESSEE SCHOOL BOARDS ASSOCIATION NEGLECTS TO PUSH FOR CHANGE
The Tennessee Association of Guide Dog Users (TAGDU), a division of the National Association of Guide Dog Users (NAGDU), is dedicated to educating and advocating for the use of guide dogs throughout Tennessee. George Hall, a concerned guide dog user of McMinn County notified us at TAGDU of a policy issued in February 2011 by the county’s Board of Education regarding the use of service animals on academic premises. Mr. Hall informs us: “I sent the policy to the U.S. Department of Justice in DC. They responded, agreeing that the policy was totally out of line and that I should turn it over to an attorney or an organization that will deal with it.” This policy is in direct violation with state and federal laws, and it includes requirements such as prior approval to use a guide dog, proof of disability and annual updates, and proof of liability insurance, none of which are constitutional.
After numerous unsuccessful attempts to contact Mickey Blevins, McMinn’s Director of Schools, we were referred to the Tennessee School Boards Association where subsequently, our concerns and requests for action were apparently disregarded. Loniel Greene, Jr., Director of Policy Services & Staff Attorney at the TSBA indicated they weren’t willing to discuss the matter any further with us. As the public, shouldn’t we be able to discuss potential changes within public school systems? Loniel Greene’s professional email signature reads: “I Support Local Schools, Local Decisions!” Does he also support local discrimination within these local schools?
Recently, we discovered the service animal policy was adopted from Blount County’s Board of Education. Blount County’s service animal policies issued in May 2010 are similar to McMinn’s, but more alarming, since they have specifically targeted employees. TAGDU President James Boehm says, “Any person with a disability including a blind student or employee, has a right to equal access and mobility! Advocacy organizations like TAGDU, a proud division of the National Federation of the Blind, and Tennessee legislators spend countless hours, to ensure a service animal user may travel in their daily routine without discrimination or hindrance. How sad it is for these school systems and the TSBA to vehemently discriminate [against] a service animal user. Through public awareness, improper policies such as these will implement standards and policies in line with state and federal laws.”
By updating Tennessee’s Access Laws in July 2013, State Senators Massey, Bowling, Burks, and Ford, had hoped to secure the rights of service animal users and businesses alike, to prevent accidental discrimination and ensure there are no discrepancies between state and federal laws. It is disheartening to witness our school boards and associated state organizations dismiss these laws and ignore the hard work of our senators and representatives. As James Brown President of the National Federation of the Blind of Tennessee, says, “Equal access is one of the final frontiers to people with disabilities. Removing these antiquated policies will go a long way to achieving that goal.”