MASSENA — Although they haven’t officially approved a proposal to bring a therapy dog into the high school, the Massena Central School Board of Education wants to at least craft a policy regarding therapy dogs so they have something ready when the time comes.
High school guidance counselor Nicole LaPage had requested that the board consider allowing her to use therapy dogs to reduce anxiety among some students. She said she would like to pilot the program during the 2020-21 school year.
Paul Haggett, chairman of the Policy Committee, told school members Thursday that they had received a presentation from Ms. LaPage, the 2-year-old rescue dog’s owner and handler.
“The dog would assist with a number of mental health-related issue. It would be certified and trained along with a handler and would not be owned by the district. It would not have any interaction with students who are allergic or have any kind of aversion or fear of dogs. It would be one of about a half-dozen or so therapy dogs in Northern New York schools. The discussion tonight basically centers around if the district should formulate a policy allowing a therapy dog to be in the district,” he said.
“The therapy dog would be in the high school counselor’s office. She would own the dog, train the dog and certify the dog. Several schools have therapy dogs,” Superintendent Patrick Brady said.
Board President Patrick Bronchetti said he understood the benefit of a therapy dog for many students, but wondered how they would prevent it from becoming a distraction for all students.
“I guess my vision is the dog being in our counseling suite, which could be one of a couple of things — in my office with a student responding to student needs or the outer office greeting students who come in,” Ms. LaPage said. “I don’t think that her particular personality is such that she’s going to be intrusive to anyone. She’s very happy to greet people.”
Board member Loren Fountaine said his only concern was about those who were allergic to dogs.
“I have a cat allergy. Within minutes my eyes swell up. I can’t go in a house where a cat’s been. It doesn’t matter” if the cat is there or not, he said.
Ms. LaPage said she would work with the school nurse, as well as families who have indicated that their child has an allergy, to ensure they weren’t exposed to the dog.
She would also examine “whether the dog is right for the time and student body” each year.
Mr. Haggett said that, during the Policy Committee meeting, another issue that came up was having therapy dogs at each school.
“Everyone’s going to want a dog then. Is that a bad thing? There may have to be other people to take on what she’s willing to take on,” he said.
Board members agreed that a policy should be developed to address therapy dogs, whether or not there was one in the district.
“Whether we do this during the next school year or not, should we at least have a policy that will allow us to launch this kind of program that we don’t have?” Mr. Haggett said.
“If I could make a suggestion, the Policy Committee has heard this pitch. They should come up with a policy” that can then be reviewed by the school board, Mr. Fountaine said.
Mr. Haggett said they will begin work on it, but it may take time to present a first reading to the board for their review.