Issue of ‘service dogs’ for autistic children in schools in committee Thursday

TRENTON –  Autistic students would be able to bring “service dogs” to school to help them feel more comfortable, according to a state Senate bill being heard Thursday.

The Senate Education Committee will consider bill S1797, which would permit students suffering from autism or other developmental disabilities to bring a service dog to school.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Donald Norcross, (D-5), of Camden, states that service dogs “will enhance the learning process and help the student reach full academic potential.”

Originally proposed by Sen. Steve Sweeney, (D-3), of West Deptford, the bill was first drafted last year in the wake of incidents in other states where parents filed lawsuits against school districts that didn’t allow service dogs.

Supporters of the bill said the dogs could help the students socialize.

Norcross said the bill is intended to clarify the rules, making it certain that the students could bring the dogs if approved by a medical professional. “If the dog helps them, I’m in favor of it,” he said.

Autism New Jersey, a Robbinsville-based nonprofit agency, supports the bill, although the group initially recommended the legislation clearly define a medical professional.

Bob Titus, a public policy director with Autism New Jersey, said that while the practice of autistic students bringing service dogs to schools isn’t common, the dogs are beneficial.

“We do see a value in the dogs helping the students in coping with day-to-day stress and other challenges in a school environment,” Titus said.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 1 in 94 individuals in New Jersey suffers from autism, Titus said.

Issue of ‘service dogs’ for autistic children in schools in committee Thursday