“Emotional support dogs” will now be allowed in student housing at Kent State University, which has settled a civil-rights lawsuit brought by the U.S. Justice Department claiming the school discriminated against students with psychological disabilities.
Banning pets for all students, the 2014 lawsuit alleged, could violate federal law prohibiting discrimination in housing.
Colleges across the country are grappling with this issue, as more students with mental illnesses are able to attend university, and as families are increasingly likely to ask for accommodations. But it’s complicated for school officials as they seek to help students with documented real need without making others uncomfortable.
“It’s a real balancing act,” said Allan Blattner, who hears a lot about this issue in his role as president of the executive board of the Association of College & University Housing Officers – International, and deals with it himself as director of housing and residential education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“What if there’s a roommate who has an allergy,” to the pet, he asked, “Who moves? If there’s damage from the animal . . .
“If it’s a cat, it’s one thing, but all kinds of different animals have been approved. Ferrets, miniature ponies – all kinds of things.”
There are often unforeseen, unintended consequences, he said, with something as simple as a 10th-floor room, loud music or tiny sinks complicating care for an animal. “Some of these residence halls are pretty tight quarters,” Blattner said.
But in recent years, he said, most colleges have moved toward accommodating not just “service animals” such as dogs that help guide blind people, but those intended to help people emotionally.
Sure, some people may question the need for some of these animals as they pop up in dorms or on planes, and see them as a ridiculous symbol of coddling and entitlement.
But advocates argue that specially trained animals are a relatively easy and common-sense way to calm and soothe someone diagnosed with anxiety, for example.
The former students who objected to Kent State’s policy could not be immediately reached for comment Monday afternoon.
The university would pay $100,000 to two former students who were not allowed to keep a dog in their university-owned apartment, $30,000 to a fair-housing organization that advocated for the students, and $15,000 to the U.S., if the settlement is approved in district court.
Eric Mansfield, a spokesperson for the university, said university officials believe the consent decree speaks for itself and they have no further comment.
“Today’s settlement reinforces the ongoing commitment of HUD and the Justice Department to ensuring that individuals with disabilities are granted the accommodations they need to perform daily life functions,” Gustavo Velasquez, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity, said in a statement.
“This agreement will help many people who are working hard to earn their fair share of the American dream,” U.S. Attorney Steven M. Dettelbach of the Northern District of Ohio said in a statement.