When asked about his 5-year-old German shepherd last December, Andrew Stevens put it simply: “She’s a good dog.”
Even so, such words did little to quell Fairfax County school officials’ concerns when it came to letting the 12-year-old boy bring his service dog to Fort Belvoir Elementary.
Andrew has Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, a severe form of epilepsy that results in as many as 20 seizures a day. Because of this, he wears a padded helmet to prevent injury and was home-schooled. Yet, the addition of a service dog to the family in November opened the door to new possibilities.
When Alaya detects a seizure coming on, the dog wipes a magnet on her collar over a vagal nerve stimulator implanted in Andrew’s chest. The device subdues oncoming seizures by sending electric signals to the brain.
However, when Andrew’s parents — Angelo and Nancy Stevens — approached the school about their son’s enrollment, they were met with unanticipated opposition. Fairfax school officials said teachers would be able to perform the same functions as Alaya. Officials also doubted whether Andrew would be able to control the dog.
The Stevenses were furious. “When I fight a battle — if I know I’m right — I’m going to fight it until I’m dead,” Angelo says today.
After the family’s story first appeared in The Washington Post in December, they made national headlines and appeared on the “Today” show and CNN. Under such scrutiny, Fairfax officials later agreed to let Andrew and Alaya attend school on a trial basis.
After three successful weeks, school officials allowed Andrew to continue going to school on his own with Alaya starting Jan. 31. The day that the family had fought so hard for turned out to be a typical one.
“It was just any other day to him,” Angelo says. “He was excited to be at school. He got to make a lot of friends.”
Andrew’s seizures are now down to one to five daily, says Angelo, as the dog is often able to intervene before they occur.
And after the Stevenses’ lobbying, Virginia’s Department of Education revised its policy in March to state that all statewide public schools must accept service dogs, provided that the student is capable of controlling his or her animal. In addition to his job as an Army sergeant, Angelo devotes 40 hours a week to the Andrew Gordon Stevens Foundation ( theandrewgordonstevens
foundation.org) , a nonprofit the Stevens family began to raise money for service dogs for other military families nationally.
“We changed one state,” Angelo says. “We’ve got 49 more to go. People need to understand.”