“Service dogs” for autistic students bill clears committee

TRENTON – The Senate Education Committee unanimously approved a bill Thursday that would enable autistic students to bring “service dogs” to school to help them feel more comfortable.

The bill, S1797, would permit students suffering from autism or other developmental disabilities to bring a service dog to school. It was sponsored by Sen. Donald Norcross, (D-5), of Woodbury.

Groups present at the hearing, including the New Jersey School Boards Association and the New Jersey Education Association, supported the bill.

John Burns, counsel for NJSBA, suggested the bill be amended to include language requiring the service animal be certified by a veterinarian to make sure it’s in good health and will not transmit any communicable diseases to other students.

He also recommended the legislation make clearer the school’s responsibilities regarding the handling of such dogs.

“These suggested amendments will help to guarantee the rights of special education students to have service animals in the classroom, while protecting the health and safety of all students,” he said.

However, one education official, Judith Peoples, of the Joint Council of County Special Services School Districts, opposed the legislation, saying in written testimony that it could require the students to be in separate classrooms if anyone is allergic to dogs.

Sean Hadley of NJEA said the bill is “an important step,” adding that the dogs can help students improve their academic performance.

The bill states that service dogs “will enhance the learning process and help the student reach full academic potential.”

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

“Service dogs” for autistic students bill clears committee