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Disabled veteran prepares to fight UNT in court, citing “civil rights violations”

Disabled veteran prepares to fight UNT in court, citing “civil rights violations”

12/04/2016 DENTON, TX Tawan Throngkumpola sits with his service dog, Cali, Sunday morning in Legends Hall where lives. Throngkumpola wears a 22kill honor ring on his right index finger as a “silent salute” to all veterans, past and present. Credit: Hannah Breland

Disabled veteran prepares to fight UNT in court, citing “civil rights violations”
April 02
14:26 2017

One UNT veteran will fight for his best friend in court.

Tawan Throngkumpola, a U.S. Navy combat veteran suffering from PTSD and traumatic brain injuries received a letter on Nov. 14 from Ron Venable, the director of the Office of Disability Accommodations. His service dog, Cali, was banned from the UNT campus.

The ban forced the psychology senior and his service dog to stay in a hotel off-campus. Tawan and his dog returned to Legends hall not long after.

Venable would suddenly leave the university after 13 years in his position.

UNT officials appeared willing to let sleeping dogs lie in the three months that followed. But on March 10, McGuinness and the appeal committee on uncontrolled service animals upheld Venable’s decision to remove Cali from UNT on grounds that she posed a “direct threat” to individuals on campus.

Tawan issued his final appeal to Vice President of Student Life director Elizabeth With over spring break and is awaiting her response. If Venable’s decision is upheld, Cali will be banned from campus effective immediately.

“I’m going to sue the university for criminal civil rights violations at the state and federal court,” he said. “Also, I will seek a class action lawsuit for pain and suffering.”

On Feb. 22, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of 13-year-old Michigan girl with cerebral palsy who was denied access to her service dog. The decision set a precedent allowing for students to sue public schools in federal court without administrative processes if their access to a service animal is denied.

Tawan said if his right to his service animal prescribed by two separate doctors is denied, UNT would be in direct violation of the Rehabilitation Act of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The ADA says that federally funded institutions, including public universities, must not prevent individuals with disabilities the access to accommodations relevant to their disabilities. One caveat states the service animal must not represent a direct threat to individuals, and the handler must be able to control their service animal.

In the eyes of Venable, McGuiness and the committee, Cali is a threat and is “uncontrollable.”

“The accommodation of having your current service dog is no longer considered reasonable,” Venable said in his decision. “The dog is a direct threat to the campus community as demonstrated by repeated accounts of the animal not being controlled and impinging upon the health and safety of others.”

The accounts Venable cited include his personal testimony of Cali nipping his hands and heels during a meeting in the Office of Disability Accommodation office, complaints from two professors concerned with Cali’s disruptive behavior in the classroom and one Legends Hall RA’s complaint that Cali scratched her during a safety check.

“I was walking around the room when the dog jumps at me and I screamed,” the resident assistant, whose name has been withheld, said. “Tawan told me not to yell and to not be afraid, but when I checked the smoke detector, the dog jumped on me and had its paws on my inner shoulders and scratched me.”

In the cases involving the Legends Hall housing employees, Tawan said he disputes their claims. He said he does not remember Cali scratching anyone, and disputes the claims based on the discrepancies in the dates cited.

The decision to uphold Cali’s removal, McGuinness said, was based on Venable’s findings. Specific pieces of evidence provided were a subsequent report and video footage of Cali lunging at a desk clerk in Legends Hall on Nov. 21.

In December, the interim director of the ODA Matthieu De Wein gave Tawan steps to ensure these types of incidents would be avoided in the future.

Official documents of the conversations and resolutions between psychology senior Tawan Throngkumpola and UNT about his service dog Cali. Throngkumpola is still waiting on a final resolution that would allow or ban Cali from campus. Jennyfer Rodriguez

Tawan said he and Cali embraced the guidelines and Cali’s behavior has improved since the fall. The key was “refresher courses” with Cali’s trainer, Tawan said. Despite the gains he and Cali have made, Tawan said Dean McGuinness and the hearing committee ignored the current progress and instead focused on the past.

“There hasn’t been a single complaint on Cali since November,” he said. “She’s so much calmer. I don’t get why the Dean and the committee didn’t take this into their consideration.”

The battle to keep Cali on campus has been long and drawn out, he said. Though his main goal of graduating and walking across the stage with Cali at UNT looks dire, he said he’s not just fighting for himself anymore.

“The reason why I’m pushing so hard on this is because I don’t want a disabled person or disabled veteran to go through what I’m having to deal with,” he said.

Tawan said a student working at the post office in the University Union “berated” him and Cali. This was an experience he considered at the least discrimination and at most a hate crime.

Tawan said the incident and apathy from the Dean of Students represents UNT’s culture and attitude toward students with disabilities.

“It’s amazing how someone can show extreme hate toward myself and a service animal and still keep their job,” Tawan said. ” It shows you how this university really cares about their disabled students and actually promotes prejudice – great reflection and role model of a typical student at the University of North Texas.”

Tawan said veterans with PTSD get overlooked when it comes to care because their wounds, scars and disabilities often aren’t visible.

Even though he’s survived three explosions and 12 years of service as a combat veteran serving in the Iraq and Afghanistan War, as a civilian and a UNT student, he fears for his life.

The PTSD and traumatic brain injuries he brought back to his civilian life resulted in amnesia, seizures, anxiety, night sweats, sleepwalking and depression.

“Most civilians can’t see or recognize invisible wounds such as PTSD,” he said. “I don’t think Dean McGuiness and the committee members understand the importance of Cali.”

At this point, the only way Tawan believes he could express Cali’s importance and change UNT’s mind is through making them pay in court or, unfortunately, a tragedy.

“If I wander across I-35 in the middle of night because Cali is not here to lie on me when she senses I might sleep walk – if I die, then maybe the University would see not completely understanding a service animal’s role is a problem,” Tawan said.

(UPDATE: Over the weekend, Vice President of Student Life director Elizabeth With denied Tawan Throngkumpola’s final appeal, banning his service dog from campus.)

Featured Image: Tawan Throngkumpola sits with his service dog, Cali, Sunday morning in Legends Hall where lives. Throngkumpola wears a 22-kill honor ring on his right index finger as a “silent salute” to all veterans, past and present. Hannah Breland

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Austin Jackson

Austin Jackson

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6 Comments

  1. Etsy McPinterest
    Etsy McPinterest April 03, 12:02

    Not a word about the breed.

    Reply to this comment
  2. David
    David April 03, 12:37

    I had issues with Ron Venable too. Saw him once for an appeal, my accommodation was made through my professor, not his office. He actually denied my accommodation request even after a $400 evaluation he made me take. The man understands obvious disabilities like people in wheelchairs or on crutches, but hidden disabilities are often misunderstood or ignored.

    While retraining maybe required, a ban is far excessive. I hope Tawan wins. At some point the University has to resort to common sense rather than the letter of the law.

    Reply to this comment
    • Common sense
      Common sense April 05, 15:39

      This has nothing to do with Ron Venable. He has left UNT and so is no longer involved. And “common sense” would mean protecting many students, faculty and staff members from an aggressive, untrained dog, and putting their safety above that of someone who selfishly doesn’t see that he is imposing on others. He will not win in court. This dog, as said above, is not a trained therapy dog, and so is not protected.

      Reply to this comment
  3. Blackdog
    Blackdog April 03, 14:24

    A service dog is not a service dog because of a handlers disability. A service dog is only a service dog if it is trained and then preforms as a service dog. Repeated incidents of described bad behavior on a dogs part and lack of control by a handler is more than enough reason to exclude a dog, especially if aggression is involved. Mr Throngkupola is correct in his observation that disabled individuals have the right to use a service dog and have protections for this under the ADA. What he doesn’t seem to understand is that this protection only applies to dogs and handlers that act accordingly, the minute a handler fails to control or a dog doesn’t act like a service dog these protections quickly go away.

    Reply to this comment
  4. whatever
    whatever April 03, 19:21

    Huge difference between a service dog and a therapy dog.

    Service dogs are protected, therapy dogs are not. Service dogs are working dogs and trained by professionals, usually to the tune of several thousand dollars. Service dogs are screened for behavioral issues as well. They are working dogs and do NOT play, scratch, bark, bite or disrupt classrooms. Service dogs have a medical function like acting as eyes for a blind person.

    Therapy dogs are basically pets and can be “proscribed” via website or by a psychologist for “stress”.

    As a disabled vet myself, I believe therapy animals should be banned everywhere. They are pets and calling them service dogs is the same kind of BS as stolen valor people claiming to be veterans.

    Reply to this comment
  5. Military sister
    Military sister April 05, 08:12

    A service dog should not need to be muzzled. If it must be muzzled, it shouldn’t be a service dog and shouldn’t be out in public around thousands of people. Period! I don’t get why this veteran doesn’t get another service dog. He could still keep Cali as a pet – but only in his home or, if he lives on campus, in someone else’s home until he can move into an apartment or house. And playing the victim card for being a disabled veteran is not an excuse for having a dog that is too aggressive to be around thousands of people. I am sick and tired of ANYONE playing the victim card and not taking responsibility for his or her actions, or, in this case, actions of his or her dog.

    Reply to this comment

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