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Settlement reached in lawsuit against Gates Chili over service dog

Aug 20, 2020

An effort by the parents of a Gates Chili student with disabilities to allow their daughter to use a service dog has been settled eight years after that battle began.

Devyn Pereira needed the dog to help her get through the school day, but the district said her parents would need to provide a full-time dog handler.

Five years ago, the U.S. Justice Department sued on behalf of Devyn, and this week, the settlement was announced.

Devyn’s mother, Heather Burroughs, was pleased with the resolution of the long-pending case.

"I’m more than excited that we finally reached the settlement, having Gates finally agree that they have to change their service dog policy so it’s compliant with ADA," Burroughs said. "This is just such a big victory for all parents with kids with special needs.”

Burroughs said that her daughter is now entering 8th grade in the Hilton School District, and she’s doing very well there.

"She handles her dog and she does it with pride and if we had believed what they told us, she wouldn’t." Burroughs said. "We would have assumed that she always needed someone to do that for her so I’m glad we figured that out for her and for everybody else who’s just not sure what their kids can achieve.” 

A statement from Gates Chili said that the resolution of the case confirms the district’s position that there was no discrimination. The district also said the settlement agreement reaffirms that the district is not--and will not be -- responsible for the care or supervision of a service animal. 

A statement from the U.S. Justice Department said that under the agreement, the school district revised its service animal policy.

Under the settlement agreement, the district will pay Devyn’s mother $42,000 for out-of-pocket expenses and damages for emotional distress.

In 2013, the public interest law firm, Empire Justice, filed a complaint with the Department of Justice on behalf of Devyn Pereira, alleging disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which ultimately led to the filing of the DOJ’s case.

“People with disabilities have the right to choose how they wish to navigate through the world,” said Kristin Small, Empire Justice Center attorney. “Schools have a moral as well as legal imperative to support and uplift students with disabilities in making those choices, instead of focusing on a student’s limitations. In addition, conditions like the one imposed by Gates Chili in this case would be cost prohibitive at best, financially impossible at worst, for many students whose families could not afford to pay for a full-time dog handler.”

This story is part of Move to Include, an initiative that uses the power of public media to inform and transform attitudes and behaviors about inclusion. Move to Include was founded by WXXI and the Golisano Foundation and expanded with a grant by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.