Lillian Everly felt anxious during her science class on Monday at Calaveras High School and excused herself to the restroom with her service dog, eight-year-old mastiff and labrador mix Angel.
She sat on the floor of the bathroom. Angel pawed at Lillian’s body and pressed her head into Lillian’s lap until Lillian paid attention to her instead of the anxious feeling.
“She listens. She’s there when I need someone. She’s around when I can’t talk to somebody like my mom or my dad. I can talk to her,” Lillian Everly, a junior, said in a phone interview on Tuesday.
Everly started experiencing acute anxiety and debilitating panic attacks during her sophomore year, which she said would often take her out of class, unable to learn or perform tasks, for an entire day.
Monday was intended as a test run for Angel as Lillian’s service dog at Calaveras High School following an initial opinion by the district that Lillian should not have the dog on campus.
The trial did not go as Lillian, or her mother, Kimberly, planned.
“In the very last class, there were kids started yelling, she’s going to bite me, she’s going to bite me,” Kimberly said. A kid was running by Angel back and forth. She caught a hold of his shorts, so she will not be returning to school.”
Calaveras Unified School District Superintendent Mark Campbell said he was limited in what he could discuss regarding the incident because it involved a student and legal counsel, but noted the district was working with parents on both sides, staff and law enforcement on the next steps.
On Tuesday, Lillian Everly decided with her family that she would no longer attend Calaveras High School and instead enroll in the district’s alternative education independent study program, Sierra Hills.
She has chosen not to bring Angel on campus again.
“It’s disheartening,” Kimberly Everly said. “She does awesome in a controlled environment, but we’re just not going to put her in a school environment.”
Kimberly Everly said Angel was set-up for failure at Calaveras High School because officials believed the dog was not a reasonable solution to her daughter’s condition.
“If it would have been handled differently when we first went in. Instead, we got push-back, push-back, push-back,” she said.
Lillian, her mother and Angel met with school officials on Aug. 12 to evaluate Lillian’s control over Angel and Angel’s responsiveness to Lillian’s anxiety.
According to a letter sent to Kimberly Everly two days later, the district did not believe Angel was attentive to Lillian’s needs.
“This is inappropriate for a service animal. It was clear in our meeting that Angel behaves similarly with people, and Lillian’s need for constant redirection evinces lack of control necessary to ensure health and safety,” it stated.
The letter offered alternatives such as an additional Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting to better determine the therapeutic and behavioral interventions necessary for Lillian’s education.
“We continue to work with all involved to balance the rights of all students, the needs of all students, the liability involved in both scenarios (allowing access, denying access), the legal defensibility of both scenarios, the potential risk factors and precedents set with both scenarios…so we can make thoughtful and defensible decisions moving forward,” Campbell said in an email.
Campbell said there are no official service dogs on any of the CUSD campuses. He said the school was able to request information about the dog’s immunizations, but they were limited by law by making other requirements.
He said his understanding was that valid service dogs must meet certain criteria, but they could not be denied access to a school campus. The same restrictions do not apply to “emotional support dogs,” he said.
Angel’s trainer, Brandon Griffin, 27, owner of K-9 Tactical Training in Valley Springs, said he was surprised by the initial denial.
“She’s a really, really calm dog for the most part. She's very very connected with Lily.” Griffin said. “You want that type of bond and relationship with the dog when you have them with you 24/7.”
Griffin said he was introduced to Angel a year ago when she was having difficulties with barking at an apparently antagonistic neighbor.
Griffin situated Angel with an e-collar that gave Angel corrective shocks when she experienced aggression, and later transitioned to service dog training.
For the last nine months, Angel was taught “tasking” for medical alerts. When Lillian has a panic attack, her breathing grows heavy, or she rapidly changes her behavior, Angel will put her paws on Lillian's chest or put pressure on her body.
“She’ll force Lillie to interact with her and that will force Lillie to calm down,” Griffin said. “To watch how fast Angel was able to task to it was amazing.”
Following the school letter, the Everlys took Angel to Silver Paw Ranch in San Andreas, which trains service dogs for veterans.
Griffin and Kimberly Everly said Angel passed a four-and-a-half hour “Good Citizenship Test” to prepare for the first school visit. A representative of Silver Paw Ranch could not be reached for comment.
“That was huge for us. The amount of stress that goes into getting the dog ready to be in that environment is not helped by their denying her being there,” Griffin said.
Griffin said since he was not at school during the incident, he could not speculate as to why Angel bit the student’s pants.
He said dogs can react when they or their handler may be threatened.
Griffin said the American Disability Act (ADA) requirements for service dogs can be ambiguous — official certification is not required — but owners may elect to use a vest or carry specific identification to prove their dog is trained and performs an intended service function.
Angel is licensed with Calaveras County Control as a medical alert service dog, Griffin said.
Service dogs can be trained at home, but many people, like Lily Everly’s family, may choose to find a reputable trainer.
The service dog will later be taken on a public test to ensure it keeps focus on the handler despite distractions or commotion.
In Angel’s case as a medical alert service dog, people can ask what the dog does for a person, but not about the condition of the person using it.
Lillian Everly has chosen to pursue a non-pharmaceutical solution to her condition.
“Service dogs are a great alternative to needing medication, it helps with whatever they're coping with. But with someone especially who is younger, I think that service dogs that are able to task and do their job appropriately are much healthier alternative,” Griffin said.
Lillian said she was looking forward to Sierra Hills because she doesn't feel she will be bullied there for her condition or for relying on Angel.
“It will be a lot calmer and there won't be as many people who are, in my eyes, targeting me,” she said. “It will be quieter and I'll actually be able to get my work done.”
Though the family has no plans to give up Angel in their home, they said they may choose to train another service dog for Lillian when the time is right.
Once she graduates from high school, Lillian Everly said she plans to become a dog trainer.
“I’ve had Angel since she was a puppy. She’s basically my best friend,” Lillian said. “I want to help people with their disabilities, too.”