Massena school board reviewing policy on therapy dogs

Massena Central’s therapy dog policy has been sent back for Policy Committee review after school board members questioned some of the language. Christopher Lenney/Watertown Daily Times

MASSENA — The Massena Central School District’s policy governing therapy dogs has been sent back for Policy Committee review after school board members questioned some of the language.

The policy was on the agenda for approval during the board’s meeting last week, but was defeated. Board President Paul A. Haggett, Vice President Amber L. Baines and Jodele L. Hammock voted to approve the first reading, and Kevin F. Perretta, Loren J. Fountaine, Robert M. LeBlanc, Patricia F. Murphy and Timothy J. Hayes voted against it.

Board members questioned the timing of the training and certification of the dog, either before the dog is allowed in school or once in the school. A therapy dog is currently in use at J.W. Leary Junior High School.

“We’re bringing in a keynote expert to consult to allow that a portion of the dog’s training will be completed on site in a designated school building, which would be the junior high,” said Ms. Baines, who chairs the Policy Committee.

But Mr. Perretta and others said that wasn’t how the policy reads. They said the policy indicates the dog must be trained and certified before it can be in the building, but then says training will be done in the building.

“In the beginning of the paragraph for training and certification where we lay out the added language for the training for certifying the dog, and in the last sentence we say, ‘Well, we really don’t need to have the training done because we’re just going to let it finish its training here.’ I just don’t understand that we can accept that, or it doesn’t make sense that you establish a criteria and then a mechanism for ignoring it down below,” Mr. Perretta said.

“This (policy) already went forward and was going to happen. I’m sure without looking back, I would bet I voted against it, and it’s already gone forward, so that is going to happen,” he added. “But, I have an issue with codifying it. Let’s wait until it happens and then deal with it again. We’re going to codify this mechanism that takes away any of the meat and teeth literally in the beginning part of what the requirements are. It’s contradictory.”

Mr. Fountaine agreed.

“It doesn’t make sense. I agree that you say it has to have this criteria and then you allow it to happen on the premises. So, we should change the policy to reflect that so it actually says what it means,” he said. “The way I read that is that they cannot be approved unless they’ve had the training, and then the dog has not had the training. I think the wording needs to be changed. It’s not a matter of whether I disagree with the policy. But, the way it’s written seems to kind of contradict itself.”

Mr. Hayes also questioned how they would know if the dog was ready to be in school if training had not been completed.

Superintendent Patrick H. Brady said some training needs to be conducted when the dog is in the school.

“What we’ve seen through experience is that it is better at some point that the dog be in an environment where they’re going to eventually be. So if we learned from the first pilot, not providing that environment made it more challenging for the dog,” Mr. Brady said.

Mr. Perretta said his other concern is the interaction between the dog and students.

“The first paragraph of this policy says that the therapy dog will be allowed under the supervision of a team or in the school counselor’s office. We previously established that there’s a mechanism in place to ask the question of who does or doesn’t want to be around the dog. If the dog is wandering all over the school, how do you protect anyone who is uncomfortable with the dog?” he said.

Although Mr. LeBlanc opposed approving the first reading of the policy, he suggested that the school environment is important for the dog.

“It needs to start somewhere and the environment is the perfect place to complete the training,” he said.

Mr. Fountaine said that could be an issue.

“For me, it’s a clarity issue, and I believe that it could be a legal issue. (What) if we have that sentence in there by itself and then something happened?” he said.

“When we find out the dog’s not safe is typically when that has already happened,” Mr. Perretta said. “By the same token, we can go through this whole process and allow the dog in and not find out that the dog is not comfortable. But, the dog expresses it in a different way when it’s uncomfortable and you have negative consequences and at that point we haven’t followed our own policy to let the dog be certified.”

Mr. Brady said they could review the language.

“We can come up with some different language that’s less contradictory if the board is comfortable with that or if it’s just that you want the dog to be totally certified before they come into the environment, then we’re talking about two different things,” he said.

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