Feb. 24, 2021 by Carol Britton Meyer
Implementing a resource dog program at Hingham High School would represent "an enormous step forward for our school community," according to Principal Rick Swanson. Resource dogs are sometimes referred to as comfort or therapy dogs.
The HHS Class of 2020 recently pledged $10,000 toward this effort as a class gift to help secure a trained resource dog for the school.
Swanson asked Supt. Paul Austin and the School Committee during their remote Monday night meeting to support the development of a policy that would make adding a resource dog to the high school "staff" possible. The towns of Hanover, Marshfield, and Weymouth already have resource dogs.
The school committee reached a consensus Monday night to ask the policy subcommittee to work on a policy for potentially acquiring a resource dog. The next steps beyond that are unclear at this time.
Some parents raised concerns about acquiring a resource dog at the meeting and also on social media. Some questioned the use of Class of 2020 funds for this purpose, while others wondered about acquiring a resource dog at a time when high school students aren't back to in-person learning.
Lauren Burm, a parent of two elementary students, had this to say to the Hingham Anchor following the meeting:
"A resource dog isn't a priority at this time -- getting students back in school is," she said. "I and many other parents have been involved day and night from day one [advocating for getting students back to in-person learning], and there's still no plan to get the middle and high school kids back to school full-time. It's frustrating."
Burm said no questions about the school budget were accepted following last night's presentation because the budget was on the selectmen's agenda for the following evening, Tuesday, in joint session with the school committee and advisory committee. "Yet the discussion about the resource dog took 45 minutes," she said.
Research shows that resource dogs can have a strong impact "on a school’s culture and climate, delivering powerful social-emotional benefits, not only for individual students in crisis but for also for the community as a whole," Swanson said.
Benefits from working or visiting with a resource dog can include reduced stress, improved physical and emotional well-being, lower blood pressure, decreased anxiety, improved self -esteem, and normalization of the environment, according to studies, thereby potentially increasing the likelihood of successful academic achievement by students who interact with a resource dog.
Swanson's request is supported by HHS counselors and special education teachers, and more recently, students participating in the HHS Unity Project, who have envisioned a resource dog as one way to help bring the school community together during these challenging times, according to Swanson.
School Resource Officer Thomas Ford has offered to serve as primary handler if such a program is established. "The nature of Officer Ford’s role at the school, which allows for a great degree of flexibility, makes him an excellent candidate to spearhead this effort," Swanson said.
Members of the Hingham Police Department, including Chief David Jones, have expressed support for a partnership of this kind between the police department and the school district, according to Swanson.
If adding a resource dog to the high school is approved, Golden Opportunities -- an accredited agency located in Walpole, Massachusetts -- is interested in establishing a working relationship with HHS and has indicated that a 15-week-old golden retriever is available.
"This dog’s older sibling is currently winning rave reviews in a similar role at Bentley University," Swanson said.
With an appropriate policy in place to support the establishment of a resource dog program, HHS could move forward with the immediate purchase of a dog, according to Swanson.
"Especially after the unprecedented challenges, strife, and stress of the past year, it’s hard to imagine a single initiative that could make a more immediate impact or deliver more smiles to the members of our community," he said.
Resource dogs are individually trained, evaluated, and registered with his/her handler to provide animal-assisted activities, therapy, and interactions within a school or other facility. Resource dogs are not "emotional support animals" or "service animals."
According to information provided by Swanson:
* A resource dog is the property of the school district, and the handler assumes full responsibility for the resource dog's care, behavior, and suitability for interacting with students and others in the school while on school district property.
* The resource dog handler’s residence must be capable of housing the resource dog and/or have adequate space for the construction of a kennel.
* An appropriate-sized kennel or safe place would be made available in the handler’s office for securing the dog indoors. All supplies and food for the dog rely on private fundraising.
* The handler is required to remove the resource dog to a separate area as designated by the school administrator in instances where any student or school employee who suffers dog allergies or aversions is present in an office, hallway, or classroom. The handler will only enter classrooms with the dog upon permission of the teacher and after ensuring that everyone in the room has given consent.
* In cases where a handler who has been teamed with a resource dog for greater than five years leaves the department through resignation, injury, or retirement, the resource dog would be made available for adoption at no cost to the handler when the determination is made that the dog is ready to be retired.
If the handler declines adoption, the dog may be assigned to a new handler or be offered up for adoption to another individual as determined by the superintendent of schools or his or her designee.
In cases where a handler leaves the position through resignation, injury, or retirement prior to five years of teamwork, the resource dog will remain the property of the Hingham School Department.
If the resource dog is determined to be suitable for reassignment to a new handler, it should remain in its role with a suitable handler. If the resource dog is determined unsuitable for reassignment, the resource dog should be made available for adoption at no cost to the departing handler, if so desired.
If the handler declines adoption, the dog may be assigned to a new handler or be offered up for adoption to another individual as determined by the superintendent of schools or designee.