Two vastly different four-legged species are considered acceptable service animals under the Baltimore public school system's newly established policy: dogs and miniature horses.
The Baltimore City Public Schools' board of commissioners approved new guidelines Tuesday on the use of service animals in district schools and facilities by students, employees and visitors who have disabilities. The guidelines state that people with disabilities, accompanied by their service animals, must be permitted access to district property.
While a dog is the conventional choice for a service animal, miniature horses are also permitted as an alternative "under certain conditions," the policy states.
These horses — typically 24 to 34 inches measured to the shoulders — must be housebroken and under their handler's control, according to the city guidelines.
District officials must consider if the "miniature horse's presence in the specific facility compromises legitimate safety requirements that are necessary for safe operation," according to the policy.
Miniature horses have "very loving and loyal personalities," which lends them well to the role of a service animal, said Alison Stonecypher, operations director with the American Miniature Horse Association. They have a longer life expectancy than dogs, and can be less intimidating to children, she said.
"People take to them really well," Stonecyther said, noting there's been a dramatic uptick in recent years of people inquiring about using miniature horses as service animals.
Under the city guidelines, employees should not ask details about someone's disability when the person brings their service animal to a city schools property, but they can ask whether the animal is required because of a disability and what task the animal is trained to perform.
The school district's special education office is responsible for helping families make arrangements for service animals owned by students. The district's contact person for the policy could not be reached for comment.
According to the new policy, the special education office, along with the district's Office of Equal Employment Opportunity and Title IX Compliance, must ensure animals have a suitable rest place, can relieve themselves, and do not trigger allergic reactions.
City schools spokeswoman Edie House-Foster said there are currently no students in the district with service animals, "be it miniature horses or dogs."