Taking a Service Animal to School

What laws cover primary and secondary (K-12) education?

There are three main federal laws that address the rights of students with disabilities in public schools.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act: Section 504 prohibits discrimination against individuals with a disability in programs that receive federal funding, which includes public schools.

Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): The ADA is a broad law that provides civil rights protections to all individuals with disabilities. Title II of the ADA prohibits discrimination by state and local governments, which includes public schools.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): IDEA requires states to provide all eligible children with disabilities a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment appropriate to the child’s individual needs. IDEA applies only to public primary and secondary schools and does not apply to public colleges and universities. IDEA requires schools to develop an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for each eligible student.  The IEP will include specialized instruction, annual goals, and any necessary related services.  Related services are services that students may need in order to benefit and receive a free and appropriate public education from the school.

These three laws were written and passed at different times in US history. Section 504 was passed in 1973, IDEA in 1975, and the ADA in 1990. Because they are not part of some grand, overarching plan, it can be confusing to differentiate when and how they apply to students with disabilities.

Want to know more about the differences in the three laws and how the intersect?

The ADA National Network has developed a factsheet called “Disability Rights Laws in Public Primary and Secondary Education: How Do They Relate?” It is a starting point for families and students to understand the various laws affecting them.

What do these laws say about service animals in a K-12 setting?

Section 504 and ADA Title II

Although there are some differences between the two federal laws, the protections are generally the same. . Both laws permit a student with a disability who uses a service animal that meets the ADA definition to have the animal at school. Students with service animals cannot be isolated from others, treated less favorably than others or charged fees not charged to others without animals. Allergies and fears of dogs are not valid reasons for denying access or refusing services to persons with service animals; in this case, students should be accommodated by assigning them, when possible, to different locations within the room or different rooms in the same school.


Many, although not all, children with disabilities covered by ADA Title II and Section 504 also receive educational services under IDEA.  Students who receive IDEA services are automatically covered as individuals with disabilities under ADA Title II and Section 504.  It has been commonly understood that the rights stated in the ADA or Section 504 are similar but different in some ways from those in IDEA and an individual student may have rights unique to one or both of the other federal statutes.  The right of a student to have a service animal in school has been considered an ADA right that, although not excluded from coverage under IDEA, is not specifically guaranteed in that statute.

I’m a student.  Does this mean I can take my service animal to school?

The expectation that a service animal can accompany a student has become complicated and somewhat unsettled due to recent court cases.  But, in general, if the student is an individual with a disability, they have the right to be accompanied by the service animal and is allowed to have the service animal at school and in the classroom.  

Want to learn more about court cases impacting the ADA and IDEA?

The ADA National Network recently developed a service animal case law brief, detailing recent court cases and how they impact the ADA.  In it there is a section specifically about court cases impacting an individual’s right to have a service animal in public K-12 schools.  Take a look at Service Animals and Individuals with Disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

What federal laws cover post-secondary institutions?

Through Titles II and III, the ADA covers both public and private universities. Section 504 covers federally funded programs and services; most post-secondary institutions receive financial assistance which means they are covered by Section 504. The Fair Housing Act covers student housing and dormitories; the ADA and Section 504 may also apply to student housing.

The general obligation for post-secondary education institutions is the same as for K-12 institutions under Title II.  That is to ensure that an otherwise qualified individual with a disability is not excluded from participation in any program or service offered by the school. Institutions are required to make reasonable modifications to policies, practices, or procedures as long as they do not fundamentally alter the nature of the program.   These general obligations are applied in any situation in which a student with a disability requests a service animal on campus.

What does the ADA say about service animals on college campuses?

An individual with a disability who uses a service animal may bring the animal to the same areas on campus where the individual may go.  Titles II and III of the ADA define a service animal as any dog individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability.  (Learn more about service animals and a special provision for miniature horses by taking a look at our Service Animal Basics page.)

What does the Fair Housing Act (FHA) say about service animals in college dorms or other housing?

The FHA covers dormitories and other student housing facilities. Under the FHA, an assistance animal (which includes both service animals and emotional support animals) does not have to be trained to perform a task for the individual but can provide emotional support that alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person's disability. If an animal meets the FHA definition of an assistance animal but not the ADA definition of a service animal, the animal cannot accompany the student to areas other than the dormitory or student housing facility. Learn more about the FHA and service animals on our Living with a Service Animal page.

Get more information about post-secondary institutions and their obligations towards students with disabilities

The ADA National Network has developed a factsheet called “Postsecondary Institutions and Students with Disabilities.” The document explains legal obligations that post-secondary institutions have toward students with disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Fair Housing Act.

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