Hillsborough School District denies assistant principal service dog at school

11:04 PM, May 17, 2013   |    comments
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Tampa, Florida -- The Americans with Disabilities Act says service dogs are working dogs and are free to go anywhere. But when an assistant principal in Hillsborough County asked the district if she could bring her service dog to school their answer was, "No."

Agnes Tanon-Rodenbach, 47, says she spent five months going through the proper channels to get permission to bring her dog to work with her, but the district's answer is still no. 

Rodenbach is on medical leave for a disability she describes as invisible but says is very real. 

"I felt devalued by a system that I've given 24 years to," she says regarding the district's decision. 

Rodenbach says she was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder last summer stemming from childhood abuse. After starting her therapy, the assistant principal at Webb Middle School says she'd notice her dog Bella would intuitively ease her out of night tremors, nightmares and daily anxiety. 

"She came up to lick my face and put her weight on me," she describes.

Is her PTSD any different than a veteran's PTSD? 

Mike Halley, founder of the K9's for Veterans, a program that trains service dogs to help vets with PTSD, says it's not.

Rodenbach took Bella through the program to become a certified service dog. 

"Why do we have to fight the system up here like this? They don't read the ADA laws?" asks Halley.

Making a Difference: Halley's K9's for Veterans

According to Halley, the school district's decision is sending the wrong message to vets with PTSD service dogs. 

"You're telling every vet out there that's got a service dog that it doesn't mean squat."

In the letter Rodenbach received this week from Hillsborough School District Attorney Tom Gonzalez, he concluded her case showed Bella is "not a service animal, but rather a therapy or comfort animal -- not encompassed within the Americans with Disabilities Act." 

As for Bella's methods of calming Rodenbach, Gonzalez wrote:

"All of these would involve some time when Ms. Tanon-Rodenbach would be unable to perform other duties and therefore would interfere with her duties of assistant principal, which would include dealing and supervising students and reacting to emergency situations which would require immediate and focused attention." 

And Rodenbach's response, "I would be a better assistant principal if I didn't have to be exhausted fighting the PTSD by myself but allowing Bella to fight it for me."

The district's decision came despite a letter from Rodenbach's psychiatrist stating he's seen her condition improve and recommends she continue her medications, therapy and to incorporate the therapy that she is receiving through her service dog on a daily basis. The psychiatrist wrote a prescription in September stating Agnes would "benefit from a service dog."

School Board member April Griffin says she will personally look into this case.

"There's a social responsibility we need to have in our district. I want us to be that kind of district. By definition there's going above the law to help accommodate."

"I love my job. I love my kids. I love what I'm doing and I'm good at it," says Rodenbach. "Bella and I are a team and we have a lot to offer the district. We have a lot to offer the school."

The assistant principal says because of Bella she's been able to reduce her medication, sleep better and venture into public places more often. She hopes school district officials change their minds and allow her to return to work with Bella by her side.

Isabel Mascarenas

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