By Sara Goldsmith Schwartz and Sarah H. Fay
Dog-friendly school campuses have become increasingly controversial in recent months. While there used to be two primary camps (those that encouraged a pet-friendly campus and those that prohibited pets altogether), the lines are getting more blurry (furry?) now. For example, a student may wish to bring the family ferret on campus for show-and-tell or a faculty member may want to nurture hamsters in the classroom to teach students about responsibility. Or a teacher, student, parent or visitor may require a service animal to accompany him or her while on campus.
Adopting written animal-presence policies and practices can help to ensure that a school responds to situations like these in a way that minimizes liability and risk, and maximizes compliance with relevant legal obligations as well as each school’s pet culture.
On the pro-pet side, advocates assert that pet-friendly policies offer benefits like reducing faculty, staff and student stress, improving employee job satisfaction and increasing the overall friendly atmosphere on campus. We see many schools allowing faculty members to keep puppies in the classroom for a few months. But would such a school allow a kitten? A baby snake? How and along what lines do we discriminate regarding pets?
Notably, a service animal may only be lawfully excluded from campus if, after a case-by-case evaluation, a school determines that the particular service animal poses a “direct threat” to the health or safety of others. Thus, the need for a service animal on campus may trump a student or employee’s allergy or pet-phobia (even if deemed a disability under the ADA and thus also requiring an accommodation).
On the no-pet side, one significant risk arises from the possibility that an animal may harm a person, another animal or property. In Massachusetts, for example, an owner or keeper of a dog is strictly liable for the harm it causes. While Massachusetts courts have not addressed the issue of whether an employer may qualify as a “keeper,” two cases in Connecticut have rejected this conclusion under a similar statute. Nonetheless, instances of dog bites in carpool lines are quite common. A school could potentially face liability under a general negligence theory in the event that a pet harms someone or something even if a specific state statute does not address this scenario. Indeed, a school could even be deemed liable to the pet owner if a pet is injured while on campus (accident in the carpool line or such).
In light of these competing schools of thought, independent schools may want to simply prohibit students, their families and employees from bringing any pets or animals on campus. If such a policy seems too draconian (or simply unworkable on, for instance, a boarding school campus), we recommend that schools adopt a written policy requiring anyone who wishes to bring an animal on campus for recreational purposes to sign an indemnification agreement and obtain insurance covering any damage or injury that might be caused by the animal.
If, however, after careful consideration, an independent school decides to welcome pets on campus, we recommend considering some or all of the following policies and practices:
- Adopt a policy that distinguishes between “pets” and “service animals,” as the two categories should be treated differently;
- Require pet owners who wish to bring a pet on campus to sign an indemnification agreement and obtain insurance covering any damage or injury by the pet or to the pet;
- Obtain parental consent from all relevant parents before welcoming pets in the classroom;
- Establish pet-free areas and/or permit individuals with animal-related issues to work from other locations while animals are on campus; and
- Implement a protocol for responding to an animal’s aggressive behavior, including banning poorly behaved pets.
If an independent school prefers to prohibit pets on campus, we recommend addressing the following:
- Adopt a strict no-pet policy that does not differentiate among dogs, cats, puppies, kittens, ferrets, gerbils, etc.;
- Distinguish between pets belonging to faculty who live on campus and pets that are “visiting” campus; and
- Clarify that service animals do not fall within the pet policy and that service animals will only be excluded from campus if, after a case-by-case analysis, the school determines that a particular service animal poses a direct threat to the health and safety of others.
In addition, we recommend updating both Employee and Parent/Student Handbooks to address such pet policies.
If you have any questions about best practices for pet-policies and protocols, please do not hesitate to contact a member of the Firm’s Education Practice Group.