It was like any other morning at Cherry Hill High School East on Thursday as students began filing in, except that there was a new, four-legged attendee – Charlie.
The goldendoodle trotted to the front door with junior Ben Shore and his father, Eric. They were met at the top of the steps by the principal, Dennis Perry. And that ended a months-long campaign by Ben Shore, 16, to persuade the district to reverse policy and allow the service dog to accompany him to school. Lawmakers in Trenton, urged by Ben, are working on a bill – "Charlie's law" – to ensure no service dogs are rebuffed.
It turned out to be a victory also for Debbie Martin's son. The middle schooler has autism and epilepsy, and he, too, will be allowed to bring his service dog to school, she said.
"I'm grateful to Ben for his efforts and thankful to the administrators at my son's middle school," Martin said.
Even as school officials eased the policy on service animals, they worked to address the opposite concerns of yet another family: Their son, a kindergartner, has an anaphylactic reaction to dogs.
Ben Shore is on the autism spectrum, and has panic disorders and ADHD. Two-year-old Charlie – certified as a service dog about a year ago – helps him manage panic attacks and relieve stress.
Ben said the dog's first day at school was not as smooth as he had hoped: One teacher's schedule had to be rearranged because that person does not like being around dogs; Ben had to make sure others did not pet Charlie; and there was pestering from at least one classmate.
"The dog being there did cause a lot of commotion, which is unfortunate," said Stephanie Wineberg, 17, a senior who attends some of the same classes as Ben. "But I think as time goes on, people will notice the dog less and it will become normal."
Ben asked his mother, Kelly, to pick up the dog in the middle of the school day.
The school told families by email Wednesday that Ben's dog would be attending school with him. A similar announcement was made over the loudspeaker, something that Ben felt drew needless attention to him and Charlie, and made him uncomfortable.
Day two, Friday, went better, Ben said, though he again sent Charlie home at midday so as not to stress out the dog.
Ben first approached Superintendent Joseph Meloche in November with his request to bring a dog to school. He said he was told this was not allowed.
That, said Ben, the son of a lawyer who aspires to be one himself, violated state law, which permits students with disabilities, such as autism, to bring service animals to school, and the federal Americans With Disabilities Act.
In an interview Friday, Meloche said all of the district's policies were being updated last year and that incorrect language was used in the policy on service animals.
A new service-animals policy is to be voted on by the school board Feb. 28, he said.
But one district family has concerns about those dogs being in schools: Ashley Misinkavitch's 5-year-old son Parker, a kindergartner at Kingston Elementary, has an anaphylactic, or extreme allergic, reaction to dogs.
Although Parker does not attend the same school as Shore or Martin, Misinkavitch worries the presence of such animals might pose a problem as Parker moves on to middle and high school.
"Having a service dog in the same school with him would essentially be denying him his educational rights," she said. "We're not against Ben's dog, and we've shown Parker what service dogs do. We just want to make sure Parker is represented in the discussion."
She also wants to make sure service dogs do not use the same bus as her son. School officials have sought to allay her concerns.
"We always look at the individual needs of children," Meloche said. "Our number-one concern is always their health and safety."
Ben Shore, meanwhile, is pushing for the passage of a law that would impose fines on anyone who denies access to a service animal without cause. The bill passed the Assembly on Jan. 23.
State Sen. Diane Allen (R., Burlington), a cosponsor of the bill, said she believes the Senate might vote on it in the coming months and that Gov. Christie likely would sign it.
As for competing concerns, such as Misinkavitch's, Allen said, "One does not trump the other."
"The school would then have an obligation to make sure Ben and this boy weren't in the same areas," she said. "But it's a big school, and I'm sure that could be done."
Eric and Kelly Shore said Ben, the oldest of their three sons, argued his case mostly without their help.