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Arkansas family, school district spar over cost of service dog for epileptic boy

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Seven-year-old Zachary Sorrells, of Ward, Ark., is seen here with his service dog named, "Majesty."FoxNews.com

Majesty, a two-year-old Golden retriever and service dog, is essential to 7-year-old Zachary Sorrells' life, accompanying the Arkansas boy with cerebral palsy and epilepsy at his public elementary school and preventing life-threatening seizures by signaling an alert in advance, his family says. 

But Majesty's presence within the Cabot School District comes at a high cost for the Sorrells -- $125 a week for a private adult handler because the school claims it is not required to provide a staff member to handle the animal.

"The school told us that Majesty is not allowed to be handled by school staff," Michelle Sorrells, the boy's mother, told FoxNews.com. "She's trained to work for Zachary but it's the responsibility of an adult to control her. The school system will not allow staff to do that so we have to send a private handler to the school."

The Sorrells, of Ward, Ark., filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, and the Cabot School District is under investigation over the matter. In the complaint, the Sorrells claim the school district would allow Majesty on campus only if the family paid for a dog handler because the boy is too young to handle the animal himself.  

The school district, meanwhile, claims it is not violating any law and acting in full compliance with the American Disabilities Act.

In an e-mail sent to FoxNews.com, Cabot Schools Superintendent Dr. Tony Thurman said, "We are not providing a handler for any service animals per district policy and it is consistently applied across the district." 

"Our policy regarding service animals is taken directly from the Americans With Disabilities Act guidelines for service animals in schools," Thurman said. "The district made the decision not to provide a handler for the animal based on ADA guidelines and district policy ... The family made the decision to provide the handler because they wanted the service animal with the student."

Thurman pointed out that, according to the ADA guidelines, "Staff are not required to provide care or food for a service animal." 

The family claims that such a statement is misleading -- and does not make clear the school isn't required to provide a handler. Michelle Sorrells described "handling" Majesty as, "simply holding her leash and using one-word commands."

Tom Masseau, executive director of Disability Rights Center of Arkansas, the group representing the Sorrells family, also took issue with the statement provided in the ADA guidelines. 

"The school is not being asked to feed, bath or walk the dog, as in how we typically take care of animals," Masseau told FoxNews.com. "What they're being asked to do is hold the leash and give the dog two or three simple commands to assist the boy in his daily activities at school."

Zachary and his parents traveled to Xenia, Ohio, in June 2013 to get a specially trained seizure-alert dog at 4 Paws for Ability, a nonprofit group that places highly trained service dogs with disabled children and veterans. Under the guidance of an adult handler, Zachary and his parents trained with Majesty -- a puppy at the time who would eventually help Zachary make strides in his ability to attend school with his peers and avoid seizures. When Majesty alerts staff to an oncoming seizure, Zachary is quickly given medication to prevent the seizure from occurring, according to Sorells. 

Zachary, who will be entering the second grade this fall, was placed on seizure medication when he was 11 months old. The 7-year-old suffers from epilepsy, cerebral palsy and a mild cognitive processing disorder due to a brain malformation, his mother said. About six months after working with Majesty, the boy came off all seizure medication in January because the animal was able to detect an oncoming seizure and alert staff in time to give Zachary medication to prevent the seizure.

"Majesty has allowed Zachary to completely come off all his seizure medication because she alerts to his seizures ahead of time," she said. "We're solely reliant on her for seizure alert and this becomes a life threatening situation if she’s not allowed to attend."

Thurman, however, suggested in his e-mail that the dog is not necessary for the boy to attend school.

"The most important aspect of this entire issue is the fact that the child can be provided with an education with or without the service animal," he wrote. "We have several students that deal with much the same medical issue and we provide a registered nurse in every school to support the health needs of all students."