Can You Bring an Emotional Support Animal to School?

Mental health challenges affect people of all ages. In fact, stress-related disorders among students can be particularly high. Emotional support animals are growing in popularity as a mental health resource for people coping with conditions like depression, anxiety, and PTSD.

For young people who are struggling, school can be a major source of stress, and it’s where you spend the majority of your day. So, if you have taken the steps to get an ESA, it’s natural that you’ll want to bring them along with you to school.

Unlike service animals, which are protected by the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), emotional support animals (ESAs) are not under the same legal protection. If you’re wondering whether you can bring your ESA to school, the answer can be a little complicated, depending on several factors.

What Is an Emotional Support Animal?

An emotional support animal can be any animal that lives with you and helps you cope with mental health conditions. They don’t need special training or testing; they often start as family pets.

If you are under the care of a mental health professional, they can write you a prescription letter stating that this animal is part of your treatment. A prescription letter can help you register your ESA and give them some extra protection. Every state has slightly different laws regarding ESAs, so it’s important to do research based on where you live and go to school.

What’s the Difference Between an ESA and a Service Animal?

Service animals often start their training from a very young age and are typically trained by professionals. To graduate from their training, they are extensively tested on their skills.

Service dogs help people with disabilities by performing specific tasks for them. These tasks may be guiding someone with severe vision impairment, alerting when a person with diabetes has dangerous blood sugar levels, or getting help in case of a medical emergency.

The ADA protects the use of service animals nationally. This ensures that people with disabilities will not be denied access to public places or housing due to their service animal. ESAs also have housing protection in most places.

Service dogs must be allowed to accompany their owners in any public place, including schools. ESAs lack that protection from the ADA, which means they may not be.

What Kind of Animal Can Be an ESA?

An emotional support animal is any animal that lives with you and helps alleviate the symptoms of a mental health condition. This means that almost any animal can be an ESA. Dogs and cats are the most common choices, but birds, rabbits, or any other domestic animal can fulfill the role.

It’s important to take into consideration the sort of living environment that an emotional support animal needs as well. They may need more space for regular exercise, and some animals need more veterinary care than others.

ESAs in Schools

School policies can vary quite a bit, but there are some guidelines to help you know what to expect if you are trying to bring an ESA to school.

K-12 Public Schools

In the United States, most children will attend public elementary, middle, and high schools. These schools receive government funding so they are beholden to many standards on a national and state level. Each state will have different requirements for public schools and some policies may even vary by county or school district.

The ADA does not consider an emotional support animal to be a necessary disability aid; therefore, they do not give them legal protection in public schools.

Objections to ESAs in School

Most schools will not allow ESAs for several reasons. There may be concerns about the animal’s behavior since there are no specific training requirements for ESAs. If they were to bite a student, for example, it could be dangerous and cause a lot of legal issues for the school.

Having an animal in the classroom can also be a distraction. It may disrupt the learning environment, especially if the animal is not calm. There may be concerns about cleanliness as well since animals need time and space to use the bathroom. Having an emotional support animal in places where food is served, like the cafeteria, could also be a concern. Other children or staff may also be allergic to or afraid of the animal.

What You Can Do If Your ESA Isn’t Allowed In Your School

While schools can have many concerns about emotional support animals in the classroom, you may be able to persuade them in some cases.

If you or your child has a documented mental health condition, you may be able to appeal to the administration and school board. Having a prescription letter will show that an ESA is recommended by a doctor for this patient. You can also have your ESA go through a training program and present a certificate of that training as part of your appeal. This can help quiet some of the objections the school may have.

While there is no guarantee that you will be able to get permission to bring an emotional support animal to school with you, it may be possible and is certainly worth a try.

If the school makes accommodations, there may still be some restrictions concerning where your ESA is permitted to go in the school. Still, most people with ESAs agree that it is worth some inconvenience to have your animal close to you.

K-12 Private Schools

Private schools are not under the governance of the state. While they will still have to adhere to certain federal standards, private schools have a lot more freedom to set their own rules.

Each school will have its own policies that you should investigate before making the decision to attend. Some private schools may be more ESA-friendly, but others will be just as strict as public schools.

If it’s a private school where students live in dorms on campus, it may fall under the state rules for housing. This may entitle you to have your emotional support animal in the dorm, but it really depends on the local laws.

ESAs in Colleges

Colleges can also vary quite a lot in their policies for ESAs, so always research your target college carefully and contact the administration if you there aren’t clear standards in the student handbook. Many colleges are making this information available online as well.

If this information is not available, reach out to the school administration. As emotional support animals are becoming more common, nearly every school will have regulations for them.

Often, there will be limitations to where an ESA can be on campus. Students will also be expected to clean up after their ESA and make sure that it adheres to appropriate behavior around other students, faculty, and staff.

ESAs in College Dormitories

Student dorms are considered rental housing. Like apartments and other rentals, these fall under fair housing. Despite most college housing having strict pet-free policies, service animals are exempt, and in most states, this includes emotional support animals.

This means that you can bring your emotional support animal with you to live in the dorm. However, it is wise to inform the college in advance and provide any documentation for your ESA. This would include any ESA registration cards, your physician’s prescription letter, and documentation of your animal’s vaccinations and training. Showing up on the move-in day with an unexpected animal could cause issues.

The school also needs to know in advance so that they can put you in the right kind of housing. With an ESA, you may need to live in a single room rather than with a roommate, for example, or be matched with a roommate who doesn’t have allergies or objections to sharing the space with an animal.

ESAs in Classrooms

While college dorms must have housing options for students with emotional support animals, this does not always extend to other parts of campus. While service animals can be in the classroom with their people, in most cases, ESAs are not permitted, though this can vary by school.

ESAs on Campus

Areas like the dining hall will usually not allow any animal inside that is not a registered service animal for hygiene reasons. Libraries are often off-limits as well.

If you are keeping an ESA, such as a dog, that will need outdoor exercise, check to see what areas of campus you can walk them on. Some places may be off-limits, and you will need to be vigilant about cleaning up behind them. The administration should be able to instruct you on which specific areas will be available for exercising your ESA on campus.

Most schools have a strict policy about leaving emotional support animals alone overnight. If a student leaves campus overnight, they are expected to take their animal companion with them, not leave them alone or with another student.

Always be sure to thoroughly check a college’s policies before applying and do your best to adhere to them so your ESA won’t be banned from campus. Some schools are stricter than others, so that might influence your choice of school

Understand Your ESA Rights

Laws are slowly evolving to protect people with emotional support animals in many states. This has provided some relief to housing discrimination, but ESAs still do not have the same privileges as service animals. This means that service animals can be with their owner in any public space, such as schools, but for the most part ESAs cannot.

For minor students in public schools, there aren’t often options to have their emotional support animal with them, but it can vary by state or even by school district. Once you reach college, living in a dorm protects your rights, the same as any other rental accommodation, but you may be restricted elsewhere on campus.

Study the policies of your individual institution to understand what is allowed. Remember, many of these rules are changing, so you can always appeal for your right to bring your ESA to school and encourage these schools to develop more inclusive policies.