Twelve-year-old Andrew Stevens and his best friend are looking forward to the start of a new semester. After mediation with the Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, Andrew’s parents have worked out an arrangement that will allow Andrew and his seizure-alerting service dog, Alaya, to attend classes. The school’s refusal to allow Alaya in class garnered much media coverage including an article in Paw Nation. But after going through mediation with Andrew’s father, Angelo Stevens, as well as Alaya’s service dog trainer, the school’s administration has agreed to a three-week trial period in which the Stevens family can prove that Alaya the service dog can get straight A’s in conduct. Andrew’s parents will take off work and alternate duties, accompanying Andrew at school over the next few weeks to supervise the adjustment.
“It’s definitely a major victory. If even only in a trial setting,” Angelo Stevens tells Paw Nation. “It shows that the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] laws apply, and it also shows that we’re willing to put in the work.”
Andrew suffers from a rare but severe form of epilepsy that causes him to experience as many as 20 potentially fatal seizures in a single day. Because of his condition, Andrew’s parents, Nancy and Angelo, monitor him around the clock to make sure he is safe at all times.
Just before Thanksgiving, they got Alaya. This extraordinary German shepherd was trained by Seizure Alert Dogs for Life to detect oncoming seizures and even prevent them when possible. According to Angelo, Alaya’s services have been invaluable. “It really is a huge victory to go from 15 to 20 seizures a day to 8 or 10,” he says.
Alaya wears a magnet around her collar and has been trained to lick Andrew in the face when she senses a seizure is imminent. As she does, this magnet activates a stimulator in Andrew’s chest that can decrease the severity of an oncoming seizure or even stop it altogether.
Even when she isn’t able to activate Andrew’s stimulator, Alaya plays a critical role in Andrew’s safety by warning others. “She’ll stand up and start sniffing, licking, making eye contact when the seizures are coming on,” Angelo explains. “She’s my son’s version of a guardian angel.”
The root of the Stevenses’ long battle with the school system lies in the Fairfax County service dog policy. Under the current rules, service dogs must be trained by the nonprofit Assistance Dogs International. Unfortunately, the waiting list for many such nonprofits can be 5 to 10 years long.
That’s why the Stevens family chose to raise the money and obtain Alaya from Seizure Alert Dogs for Life, a for-profit organization with no ties to the ADI. According to Fairfax County officials, this means that Alaya’s behavior is suspect — a misconception the Stevenses mean to dispel during the three-week trial period. “She’s a service dog, but she’s still a dog,” Angelo explains. “So we’ll have to supervise the integration process.”
After battling the school administration for weeks, the Stevenses know how tough it can be to gain acceptance for service dogs — and school hasn’t even started yet. “We’re all very tired,” Angelo tells Paw Nation. “It’s been a very busy week. Even Alaya’s a little worn out.”
To provide resources to other families who may find themselves engaged in a similar struggle, the Stevenses have set up the Andrew Gordon Stevens Foundation. Now that Andrew’s dog is fully paid for, the goal of this foundation is to help military families obtain service dogs of their own.
To learn more about Andrew and Ayala and their battle to go to school together, watch the “Today” segment below, which was taped before this trial attendance was approved.