ST. LOUIS (AP) -- An Illinois state appellate court has sided with a couple's push to let their autistic son bring his service dog to school, marking the latest legal setback for the school district unconvinced the animal serves a necessary educational purpose.
The Mount Vernon-based 5th District Appellate Court, in a unanimous ruling Wednesday by a three-judge panel, found "ample evidence" to support a lower court's finding that Carter Kalbfleisch would be irreparably harmed if the dog was not allowed to accompany him to school in the Columbia, Ill., district.
The ruling upheld a Monroe County, Ill., judge's temporary ruling in August that the dog be allowed into then-5-year-old Carter Kalbfleisch's pre-kindergarten schooling pending a full hearing -- the likely next step in the legal tussle, unless the school district relents.
Christi Flaherty, an attorney for the school system, declined to discuss the matter Friday, saying she hadn't discussed the ruling with the district.
An attorney for the Kalbfleisches doesn't anticipate the school system will concede. "I'm ready to stop having to spend money and fight this fight whenever the school system wants to come to the table and talk this out, but for now we're left with no other option than to keep throwing money at it," Clay St. Clair said.
The Kalbfleisches have argued their son's development benefits from the dog and that the two are inseparable. The district has countered that allowing the dog in the classroom would endanger at least one student allergic to animal fur, and that the dog served no necessary educational purpose.
As the appellate court weighed the matter, the school district has been paying to send Carter to the Illinois Center for Autism in Fairview Heights, a special-needs site roughly a 45-minute drive from the family's hometown.
It's not clear now whether the district would reconsider allowing Carter and the dog into the classroom in light of Wednesday's ruling. A message left Friday with Ed Settles, the school system's superintendent, was not immediately returned.
The Kalbfleisches' lawsuit is one of several, including in California and Pennsylvania, challenging the refusal by schools to allow service dogs in the classroom.
Last month in east-central Illinois' Douglas County, a circuit judge sided with the family of a first-grader in ruling that the boy gets to keep his autism helper dog -- Chewey, yellow Labrador retriever -- in school in the Villa Grove district.
Parents say the animals calm their children, ease transitions and even keep the kids from running into traffic.
But school districts have questioned whether the animals are true "service dogs" -- essential to managing a disability -- or simply companions that provide comfort. School districts say they need to protect the safety and health of other students who may be allergic or scared of dogs.
Service dogs long have been used by the blind, but training them to help those with autism is relatively new. While there is little research on how these animals affect autistic children, families like Carter's say they have seen marked improvement.
Autism is a developmental disorder that involves behaviors such as poor eye contact, trouble communicating and repetitive movements such as rocking or hand-flapping. Those with the disorder are prone to outbursts and may have trouble with changes in their environment.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)