District revises its policy on therapy animals

By Dedra Cordle

Staff Writer

Photo courtesy of Franklin County
The Franklin County Sheriff’s Office certified therapy dog, Mattis, is pictured here at Westland High School. The South-Western City Schools District Board of Education recently revised its animals on district property policy so Mattis can make more trips to the schools.

An English labrador retriever named Mattis is changing lives – and policy – in the South-Western City Schools District.

For the last seven years, the certified therapy dog has been visiting schools in the district with his handler, Franklin County Sheriff Deputy Darrah Metz. Working in tandem, they have taught thousands of students about internet safety and saying ‘no’ to drugs, while also providing behavioral counseling, mental health support, and grief support for struggling youth.

The duo say that even though they have loved each school they have visited, they have a special affinity for Westland High School.

Since 2017, Mattis and Metz have been serving as the relief school resource officers at the high school on the westside. The staff say their dedication to the school community cannot be understated.

Wanting to express her support in seeing Mattis and Metz as more permanent fixtures at the school, guidance counselor Christina Shore did something she considered to be out of character for her: signing up to speak before the district’s board of education on its existing ‘animals on district property’ policy.

At a public meeting in January, Shore went before the board to seek a reevaluation of the policy by including language allowing certified therapy dogs to be on school premises. She told the board that the impact the therapy dog and its human handler have had on the school community was too important to allow vagueness in official policy.

“Deputy Metz understands our community, our student population, and the specific needs that are unique to Westland High School,” said Shore. “More importantly, she wants to be here.”

In regard to Mattis, Shore said she considered him “critical” to the work of school counselors as he brings a “calmness” with him when he interacts with students who are upset or displaying escalating behaviors.

“I have personally observed the dynamics in the room change when Mattis arrives,” she said. “He brings a calmness and at times a distraction so that we all get a chance to step back, take a deep breath, and begin to talk more rationally.”

She went on to tell the board members that she believes certified therapy dogs could be a positive influence at any school and she wanted to see Mattis and Metz continue to be one at theirs.

At its regular meeting in early April, the board unanimously agreed to revise its ‘animals on district property’ policy. It includes clarifying language permitting certified therapy dogs to be on school grounds under certain conditions.

According to Evan Debo, the district’s executive director of communications, to qualify as a therapy dog, the canine must come with official documentation of certification as a therapy dog from one of these organizations: The American Kennel Club, Intermountain Therapy Animals (R.E.A.D), Alliance of Therapy Dogs, Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs, Love on a Leash, Pet Partners, Therapy Dogs International, or another certification program recognized by the AKC.

Additionally, he said therapy dogs and handlers must provide:

  • Documentation of an educational purpose for the therapy dog and a regular appraisal period for continuation.
  • Documentation that the therapy dog is not younger than 1 year old and is properly licensed according to local requirements.
  • Documentation from a licensed veterinarian that the therapy dog is current on its vaccinations and immunizations, is free from fleas and ticks, is in good health, is housebroken, and does not pose a danger to the well-being of students or staff.
  • Documentation of an insurance policy that provides liability insurance for the therapy dog while on district grounds.
  • Documentation that the handler has completed a background check consistent with board policy and is prepared to be solely responsible for the therapy dog and the therapy dog’s care, cleaning, feeding, and cleanup while on district grounds.
  • Agreement that the therapy dog and handler will abide by school rules and any specific rules for the therapy dog’s presence on district grounds.

While the existing policy was not solely revised to accommodate Mattis and Metz, Debo said their collaboration with the school staff and community did add to the discussion.

“Through their collaboration with students, staff, and programs, K-9 Mattis and Deputy Metz, while serving in an interim capacity to start the year, quickly accelerated conversations about how this dynamic may be used to benefit stakeholders,” he wrote in an email. “To date, this tandem continued to establish themselves in their first year as really the first blueprint on how successful this new venture could be in helping students and staff.”

According to Metz, Mattis averages about 30 deployments for therapeutic purposes per week, helping students “process what they are feeling in a given moment” and instead of sending upset students home, “are able to retain them and get them back to class.”

She said Mattis’ retention rate is 97 percent.

Metz said she and Mattis look forward to continuing to be a part of the community at Westland.

“We are thrilled to be a part of the Cougar family,” she said in an email. “We want to build positive relationships with the students and staff while providing a safe and secure learning environment.”

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