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Bullied by classmates, this Georgia teen can now bring her service dog ‘Carson’ to school to cope

Bonny O’Donnell and her service dog Carson in front of Savannah High School  in Savannah, Ga. O’Donnell fought to be able to bring Carson to classes to help her cope with PTSD related to bullying. (Stephen B. Morton for The Washington Post)
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The other middle school students and ninth-graders told her that no one would miss her if she killed herself. And they dared her to try it.

Because she was overweight from a hormone imbalance, she heard jeers from her peers like “whales are not allowed in shark country.” Because she was awake all night with nightmares, replaying the bullying that tortured her by day, she fell asleep in class, and her bullies snapped photographs of her dozing off at her desk, posting them on social media sites.

Bonny O’Donnell, 17, now a junior at Savannah High School in Georgia, did not take her own life — although a bullied seventh-grader from another school in the same district did. Bonny’s parents intervened as soon as they absorbed how damaged their daughter was, and swiftly put her under the care of a psychiatrist.

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Bonny was hospitalized three times for nervous breakdowns and suicidal urges during her freshman year of high school, even after transferring schools earlier in the year. She was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of the bullying, according to her medical records, and was taking medications for anxiety, depression and insomnia.

But late last summer, it all began to change for Bonny: Her therapist suggested she try using a service dog to help treat what had become a crippling fear of people and leaving the house. It took months to persuade the school to allow Carson in, but last month Bonny won her argument.

On Monday she will go to classes with the dog for the first time. And for the first time since she can remember, Bonny said she is not afraid to go to school.

“This is a huge victory,” Bonny said, giddy.

Over the past several years, an exploding number of groups have trained and placed service dogs with children on the autism spectrum, adopted children with fetal alcohol syndrome, combat veterans suffering with post-traumatic stress and brain injury, and the mentally ill.

But Bonny may be a pioneer. Service dog and bullying experts said they had not heard of a dog being used to help treat bullying-related trauma.

 Proving Bonny’s need for Carson

At home, Bonny had created a cocoon for herself surrounded by her pets: Chief, a cocker spaniel; Chester, a bearded dragon; Marshall, a ferret; Madam Octa, an exotic spider; and Frostine, an albino snake, all of these creatures offering her the otherwise elusive solace of unconditional friendship.

She was afraid to leave the house, and when she did Bonny said she felt as if she were surrounded by people who wanted to attack her.

After her therapist suggested it, Bonny and her family began looking for a dog that could accompany her, and found Carson, a 50-pound Labrador-Husky mix on Craigslist.

At the time, Carson was being trained as a therapy dog — there is a crucial distinction between that and a working service dog under federal disability law. Bonny and her parents –Vicki, a fourth-grade teacher in the same public school district her daughter attends, and Dale, a security guard at a factory in town — brought the dog, now 3, home in August.

It wasn’t long before Bonny noticed how much the dog was helping her, and the family made an appointment with the high school principal to see if Carson would be allowed to go to school.

In September, the family approached the school for permission to have the dog go with Bonny to classes. Officials denied their request.

School officials would not comment on Bonny’s case, citing student privacy concerns.

Her family said the school district at first refused to allow Carson on campus because officials said he was not a service dog. Unlike a therapy dog, a service dog helping someone with a mental illness like PTSD is entitled to access to public and private property, under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The family obtained Carson’s certification as a service dog in October, but the school district was still skeptical.

There has been some abuse of the service dog system, in part because any dog owner can apply, buy a vest for the dog and, as Bonny’s mother did, pay roughly $120 for a certificate. But if the dog is not performing specific tasks related to the handler’s disability, in this case Bonny’s PTSD, and the dog bites someone or the fraud is reported, the owners of the service dog can face criminal and civil charges.

Vicki O’Donnell provided extensive documentation to the school district to prove that Bonny truly relied on Carson.

“I didn’t want to be one of the people who just has it so the dog can go with us,” the mother said. “Bonny truly does need Carson. Carson goes everywhere, and it’s not always convenient.”

Eventually, citing what school officials said was a painstaking decision, the school agreed that allowing Carson on campus was best for Bonny.

“We reviewed service animal guidelines and consulted our attorney, but mainly we decided as a system that having the dog was in the best interest of the child,” said Sheila Blanco, a spokeswoman for the school district. “It was a very unique situation and we invested a lot of time in making this decision.”

Earlier this month, the school district held its first “Bullying Summit,” for all school employees, and has scheduled another one for next January.

While she had not been the target of serious bullying at her new high school, Bonny is still easily triggered by the school environment itself, she said: the noise; the bustle of teachers and students, the memory of rejection.

With Carson at her side, Bonny feels safe and protected, from her own demons and outside forces that once completely destabilized her, her mother said.

“Carson will make a world of difference,” Vicki O’Donnell said. “She wouldn’t go out to eat, she wouldn’t go to the mall, but she can with him, only with him she can do that.”

Deep pressure therapy

In-depth research into exactly how service dogs like Carson successfully perform their psychiatric duties is still in its infancy. Dogs can pick up easily on the scent of the stress hormone cortisol, and Carson can anticipate an oncoming panic attack in Bonny.

He will rub his nose against her or lick her face to distract her from the source of her anxiety, and he has repeatedly helped to lower her pulse rate, Bonny and her mother said. The other savior for Bonny, Carson’s ability to perform another officially recognized service dog task known as “deep pressure therapy,” comes when Carson leans against her in a tense situation, his weight acting as a calming mechanism.

“That’s why I wanted a mid-sized breed,” Bonny said. “Large enough for the pressure, but not so big that he would take up too much space in a classroom.”

The pressure, along with the passage of the soothing hormone Oxytocin between dogs and humans, can be highly effective in bringing a person suffering from panic or a flashback into the present.

The section on service dogs in the Americans with Disabilities Act states that an official task is “calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties.”

Researchers say while there is concrete science to explain these dogs’ capabilities, establishing it with rigor – and the financing needed for large-scale studies — may be a ways off.

“There is good science behind this,” said Brian Hare, an associate professor of evolutionary anthropology who is heading up new research at Duke University, looking what specific canine traits could make for the best assistant dogs. “But in a classroom, there are going to be people who have phobias, who will be allergic — you have to balance it all out.”

 ‘It’s so scary how easily that could have been Bonny.’

Despite such a wrenching bullying ordeal with Bonny, Vicki O’Donnell is quick to count her blessings. At about the time Bonny was being bullied, another girl in the school district, Jennifer Brook Stephens, had reported to her mother in sixth grade that the girls at school were becoming vicious, especially through texts to her cell phone.

Her mother, Christy Stephens, a pharmacy technician with three sons who lives in Pooler, Ga., immediately went to the middle school with her daughter and demanded a meeting with a counselor, she said. She was assured that the teachers and counselor would find out who the culprits were and put an end to it.

Things seemed to improve for a while, although Stephens now knows, from looking through her daughter’s cell phone, she said, that Jennifer was hiding the fact that the bullying had gotten worse again in seventh grade. Still, she was excited to go dress shopping for the Valentine’s Day dance at West Chatham Middle School, on February 13, 2014, and her mother dropped her off at school the next morning with no sense that anything was wrong.

Later that day, Stephens said she received two telephone calls, one from the nurse’s office, saying Jennifer had checked in there, but without an explanation as to why, and a second from a counselor “just checking in.” By the time Stephens got home from work, her husband and sons had found the girl dead in their backyard. She had hung herself and left a note saying that she was not strong enough to take the gossip and bullying.

“I had to put my 13-year-old in a coffin,” Stephens said through tears.

But she has not wavered in her fight for awareness and prevention of bullying. On Saturday, Stephens went to an anti-bullying 5K in Savannah, where Bonny and her mom also were. The families do not know each other, other than Vicki O’Donnell being haunted by Jennifer Stephens’s death.

“It’s so scary how easily that could have been Bonny,” she said.

Draining as it can be to tell Jennifer’s story and relive the devastating loss, Stephens said she keeps pushing herself for the sake of other vulnerable teens.

“If we could just save one person, I know if we could save one person,” she said. “Jennifer would be tickled pink and she would say ‘mom, you’re doing it.’ But I’d tell her, ‘We’re doing it together.’”

As for Bonny, she was preparing Sunday night for the big day at school with Carson. In addition to her own backpack full of textbooks, pens and paper, she has a new small backpack for Carson. In it, she packed beef-flavored “Mini-Canine Carry Outs,” a treat for what she said was “basic obedience;” milk bones; and a folding fabric dish for his water.

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