The Growing Trend of Emotional Support Animals in Education: Opportunities and Challenges

By: | November 27, 2023

Sarah is the Vice President of Risk Management at United Educators. She is a member of the University Risk Management and Insurance Association, the National Association of College and University Attorneys, and the Kentucky Bar Association. Sarah has written extensively on enterprise risk management matters and managed complex insurance claims and high exposure litigation.

Risk & Insurance’s recent series highlights growing mental health concerns for organizations of all kinds, including educational institutions.

At United Educators, we started tracking the student and staff mental health concerns of our members long before the COVID-related uptick. More recently, we’ve seen a rise in queries about potential risks of having animals on campus as pets, service animals or emotional support animals (ESAs).

Despite the growing interest, we’ve not seen an increase in animal-related claims. Over the last 13 years, we’ve only had 10 claims related to ESAs, service dogs or pets across our 1,600 members.

Perhaps, like me, you’ve seen animals being lauded at an airport or industry event to help lower stress levels. Maybe you’ve read about trained therapy dogs serving veterans with disabilities or heard how reading aloud to dogs can help struggling kids.

While we’re not all dog lovers and some of us may have pet allergies, there is an increased interest in introducing animals to new spaces and managing possible risks surrounding ESAs and other pets.

News of exotic ESAs, like Wally the alligator that recently was denied entry to a Phillies game, may spark skepticism.

It’s important to keep in mind that more than 90% of disabilities are invisible, according to the Department of Commerce.

It’s in our interest to take mental health needs of our colleagues, staff and students seriously. We want our organizations to thrive amid heightened stress levels, and we want to help prevent discrimination.

Those with invisible disabilities often don’t disclose conditions for fear of prejudice or social stigma. Fear of disclosure typically is more acute among the traditional student-age population and those who recently have acquired the disability.

Certainly, there are overarching legal obligations surrounding service animals. Organizations evaluating their approach to animals on site should use relevant federal, state and local laws as a starting point for a plan.

Other considerations for those looking to create animal-friendly policies include:

  • Eligibility: Who is allowed to have an animal on property?
  • Codes/Ordinances: Be aware of local, state, or federal laws governing animals.
  • Species Specifications: Enumerate what species are allowed. Consider a petition process for any animal that deviates from species standards.
  • Restraint: Most pet policies, and often state or local laws, require animals to remain within a cage or on a leash when outside of a residence.
  • Vaccination: Require evidence that animals are fully vaccinated before they are brought onto the property.
  • Restricted Areas: Designate animal-free spaces for people with animal allergies and people with disabilities that leave them at particular risk from animals, or would prefer an animal-free environment.
  • Federal Disability Law: Some animals must be allowed in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities and Fair Housing acts.
  • Removal: List conditions under which an approved animal may be removed.
  • Waivers: Prior to bringing animals on property, owners should sign a waiver releasing the organization from liability in the event of an animal injury, death, or disappearance. Always consult local legal counsel when drafting waivers.
  • Financial Responsibilities: Identify who is responsible in the event an animal causes damage to property.

Other concerns may include carpet and furniture wear-and-tear, odors, waste and landscaping, noise issues, and time to mediate related conduct.

Organizations should examine practical and policy considerations that emotional support animals present. When it comes time, consider societal and mental health benefits alongside potential downside risks of ESAs or pets.

Our experience suggests those interested in welcoming more animals into their midst can thoughtfully manage the risk. &

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