Although often described as adorable and calm, service animals are known to assist individuals with disabilities, such as those who experience anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder, blindness or deafness. Service animals also assist students with disabilities on college campuses around the world.
Keene State College junior and Resident Assistant (RA) in Monadnock Hall Alexandra Esandrio said she was forced to step down from her job as an RA at the end of this semester after claims had been made, labeling her service dog, Joy, as “aggressive.”
According to Esandrio, however, there is no way this could be the case.
In the beginning of the year, she said she initially brought her pitbull beagle mix to campus as an emotional support animal (ESA). Typically, ESA’s are covered on campus by the Fair Housing Act and have to be acquired because of a disability. “There has to be a connection between what the animal provides and symptom relief of the disability,” KSC Associate Vice President and Dean of Students Gail Zimmerman said.
Once Esandrio’s anxiety and panic attacks began to increase at the start of the school year, she said Joy was really intuitive about it. “She kind of already knew what to do, so I decided to take that a step further and start service dog training with her,” Esandrio said.
Part of Joy’s first training, Public Access Training, involved Joy attending a KSC class. After bringing her to class for about a week, she said a student reported Joy as a “fake” service dog. Following the report, Esandrio said Campus Safety came to her classroom, told her she had been “busted” and “caught” with a fake service dog and was put on probation and given a conduct hearing.
In effort to refute this statement, Esandrio said she met with the Office of Disability Services (ODS) to express how much Joy helps her. “I talked to them about her training and how she helps me and what she’s doing and everything and they said service dogs are a great thing, continue doing what you’re doing and sent me on my way.”
However, Esandrio said ODS did not inform her of any additional documentation or doctor’s notes needed to consider her a full service dog. She said ODS just required her to keep Joy in her room. “They just said, ‘Okay, she stays in your room, we’re not going to consider her a full service dog yet,’ which is understandable because she is in training.”
Director of Disability Services Jane Warner did not respond to request for comment.
Zimmerman said certified service dogs are regulated and covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
“Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), businesses and organizations that serve the public must allow people with disabilities to bring their service animals into all areas of the facility where customers are normally allowed to go,” according to nh.gov.
However, Zimmerman said service dogs in training are covered by state statutes, and New Hampshire gives service dogs in training the same rights as certified service dogs.
About a month later, Esandrio said a custodian in Monadnock Hall reported Joy as being aggressive and charging at him. Additionally, she said her Resident Director (RD) told her Joy was growling and showing her teeth at residents on the third floor, and since there are no cameras on each individual floor, all she had to go off of was what the custodian had said.
“I said, ‘That’s not possible, she’s with me at all times,’” Esandrio explained. “She has undergone extensive stranger behavior testing… and ODS has a copy of that.”
According to the KSC website, “Both service dogs and assistance animals must be under the full control of their handlers, be in good health, and not be unruly, disruptive, or threatening.”
Esandrio said Joy did not show aggressive qualities. In fact, Esandrio said she is often described as docile and does not show aggressive behavior.
Service animals are defined by the ADA as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Sometimes, miniature horses can be trained to do the same types of things as well.
Joy is trained to alert Esandrio to panic attacks by lowering her to the ground and performing deep pressure therapy to stop hyperventilation to prevent her from passing out, she said. Additionally, Joy performs what’s called tactile touch stimulation when Esandrio goes into a dissociative state, which makes it difficult for her to know what’s real and what’s not. Joy has the ability to bring her out of that state, ground her and bring her back to reality.
But after having a panic attack in her boss’s office, Esandrio said Joy was unable to assist her with these tactics because she was told Joy was not allowed to leave her room.
After having a meeting with the Director of Residential Life Kent Drake-Deese, Esandrio said she was asked to step down from her job as an RA because of the accusations made against Joy. “I got forced to step down from being an RA at the end of the semester and they told me that Joy had to leave campus by Sunday [Dec. 3]… once again, nobody was really listening to the truth.”
Director of Residential Life Kent Drake-Deese did not respond to request for comment.
Esandrio returned to ODS once again, where she said they told her they did not remember her telling them Joy was a service dog in training. “However, I did and they told me she can’t leave my room until she’s a full service dog… So the stories are kind of all over the place and nobody’s really on the same page on the school’s side.”
She said ODS then gave her the proper documentation, and once she obtains a note from her doctor, Joy will be considered an official service dog in training from KSC. “This all could have been avoided if, in the beginning of the year, when I went and talked to them about it, they recognized her as that, but instead they just told me she had to stay in my room.”
Since Joy has been confined to her room, Esandrio said her anxiety and panic attacks have significantly increased. “Now that Joy’s not allowed to come with me to class because [ODS] said she’s confined to my room, I have had to leave class on, I’d say, at least three occasions because of panic attacks,” she said. “Since I can’t have her, I’m actually failing the first class of my entire life.”
As someone on the Dean’s List, an RA, an employee of the Night Owl Cafe and the Game Room and dedicated mission worker in the Dominican Republic over the summers, Esandrio said she loves school and considered herself a “nerd.” Failing a class is something she has never done before.
“[The school has] kind of been trying to prove their point to me, instead of listening to my concerns and helping to make my experience here better. It’s kind of been, ‘You didn’t submit the paperwork, then you don’t want to work with us,’ when in reality, I went to them, and they didn’t give me paperwork for a service dog in training.”
One of Esandrio’s biggest supporters,she said, is first-year Kylie Murphy. Murphy said, “[The school is] picking the wrong battles. There are students here who are doing drugs and getting away with it, and then they’re trying to take away a service dog.”
As of now, Esandrio said the Director of Residential Life Kent Drake-Deese told her everything is “on hold,” meaning she still has her job and Joy can remain on campus for the time being. Definitive answers, however, she said are still unknown.
Esandrio has started a petition, which has attracted more than 71,000 supporters both nationally and internationally, in an effort to help Esandrio keep her service dog in-training on campus to assist her through everyday life. It can be found at thepetitionsite.com.
In terms of support, Esandrio’s residents, as well as others from other areas of Monadnock Hall have made posters, shared the petition online and recruited friends from other states and countries to sign it in support of helping her to keep Joy here on campus. “If you walk around Monadnock…there’s posters up everywhere that says, ‘Alex brings us Joy,’’’ Murphy said. “We’re just trying to bring awareness to it.”
Jessica Ricard can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org