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School official says service dog barred from work

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Published:   |   Updated: May 18, 2013 at 08:15 AM
TAMPA -

Agnes Tanon tried to take her service dog to school one day last month in her job as an assistant principal at Webb Middle School.

It lasted about two hours.

Tanon, who has worked for the school district 20 years, said she was told the dog, Bella, couldn't stay. So she and Bella went home, and she hasn't been back to work since.

Tanon, 47, who now is on medical leave, thinks she should be allowed to keep the dog with her at school under the Americans With Disabilities Act. She said she has been diagnosed with a medical condition that she doesn't want to make public.

“I think I have given more than 20 years to the system, and I am a valuable asset to the system,” Tanon said. “They're just pushing me aside.”

But the Hillsborough County school district says Bella, a blackmouth cur, is more of a comfort or therapy dog than a service animal.

Tom Gonzalez, attorney for the school board, wrote in a letter this week that neither Tanon's doctor nor therapist had prescribed the service dog.

Tanon does have a prescription from her physician, Hardeep Singh, saying she would benefit from having a service dog.

Mark Kamleiter, a St. Petersburg lawyer who is not involved in the case but who handles disability issues, said school districts usually get into legal tussles over animals with students, not employees.

“They're on the wrong side of a strong national trend to recognize the value of service dogs,” Kamleiter said. “If the dog is properly trained, it would not interfere in her role as an administrator. There is no good reason to keep the dog out.”

That's also the position of Tanon, an assistant principal since 2006 who started as a science teacher.

“I can do my job and do it better,” said Tanon, who previously worked at Martinez, Walker and Young middle schools. “I just want to be treated as an individual who has an invisible disability.”

Mike Halley, who runs a business called K-9s for Veterans in Tampa and helped train Bella, is unhappy with the resistance Tanon is getting from her bosses.

“I don't know why the school board is giving her any problems,” said Halley, who has trained 105 service dogs in four years, most for veterans. “It would just let her be a normal person.”

The school district, however, said the presence of the dog — and its calming functions — would preclude Tanon from working as a normal assistant principal.

“These tasks could consist of the animal sitting on her lap, making contact with her or coming in between the possible trigger and her,” Gonzalez wrote.

“All of these would involve some time when (she) would be unable to perform other duties and therefore would interfere with her duties of assistant principal, which would require dealing with and supervising students and reacting to emergency situations which would require immediate and focused attention.”

Kamleiter, the St. Petersburg lawyer, said he thinks the district is saying no because of the precedent it might set.

“They are afraid of opening the floodgates of students bringing their dogs to school,” Kamleiter said. “If the administrator can have one, why can't the child?”


rshaw@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7999

Twitter: @rshawTBO

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