COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON - Three Rivers High School AdviseMI Advisor Michaela Whipple and Paws For A Cause facility dog trainee Lindstrom listen to a presentation by Three Rivers High School Principal Carrie Balk proposing a facility/therapy dog program for the school district during Monday’s Three Rivers Community Schools Board of Education meeting.COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON - Three Rivers High School Principal Carrie Balk presents on a potential facility/therapy dog program for the school district at Monday’s Three Rivers Community Schools Board of Education meeting. She explained how the facility dog in training they’ve had, Lindstrom, has impacted students and what a facility/therapy dog could bring to the district.

TR Board of Education approves facility dog program for schools

THREE RIVERS — Three Rivers Community Schools could soon have some furry friends at district schools to help students who may need them during the school day.

The TRCS Board of Education Monday unanimously approved beginning a therapy/facility dog program for the school district. The program would place a therapy/facility dog at the schools through the help of the Paws With A Cause (PWAC) program, starting with Three Rivers High School and potentially other schools in the future, and would help with social-emotional support for both students and staff.

There are still a few things the district and the schools have to accomplish before the program is fully implemented, including developing policy around the facility/therapy dog program and finding dogs for the program.

The school district would cover the cost of the dogs, which is around $6,000 per dog, as the dogs would have to be owned by the district. Three Rivers High School Principal Carrie Balk, who presented on the potential program during Monday’s meeting, said she is currently looking to secure donations and/or grants to cover the cost of a fully-trained dual-certified dog for the high school when they become available.

It’s unknown when the program will officially begin with the high school, as Balk said it could take a while for an appropriate dog to become available, but it could happen as early as next semester or in the next year or so.

In her presentation, Balk said the idea of a therapy/facility dog program began when Lindstrom, a one-year-old female golden retriever, was temporarily placed at the high school back at the beginning of the school year as part of her comfort dog training with PWAC. The school’s AdviseMI advisor Michaela Whipple, who is a volunteer with the Wayland-based nonprofit, is Lindstrom’s current handler.

Balk said Lindstrom has had a positive impact on the students in the school just from her being there, giving a recent example of comforting tense students following the Oxford school shooting last week. She presented a number of responses from a student survey on what kind of impact Lindstrom had on them, all of them praising the positivity the dog brings to the building and how it would be great to have a dog permanently in the building.

“Basically, kids love having Lind in the building,” Balk said. “Gathering feedback from students, it was obvious Lind has made a difference.”

However, Lindstrom will only be around until February, when she begins the next phase of her training at a Michigan prison with a new handler. Balk said because of the impact Lindstrom has had on the school, she proposed having a program in place.

“The students are genuinely sad she is leaving, and I started to think, maybe this is something we need to potentially look at, having a more permanent dog at the high school,” Balk said.

Balk said through her research into PWAC, dogs from the program are selected based on temperament and love of working with people, and also have desired suitability for work in public spaces, including therapy and comfort with school counselors and teachers. PWAC staff would meet with school staff and the person who would be the dog’s primary handler to learn about the school, the student body and the environment, and using that information, the program selects a dog that would fit the school and the handler.

The handler, Balk said, would be the person the dog works with at the school, and in some cases take care of the dog and live with them outside school. She added the dog they would get will be approximately 18-24 months old and have completed obedience and public access training, as well as advanced training in Michigan prisons. A PWAC field rep would be assigned to support the team at the school over the course of the first eight to twelve weeks, helping the handler learn to work with the dog and integrate it into the school community. When ready, the team at the school will be tested and certified by Therapy Dogs International to ensure the team has the skills and temperament for the working placement.

Balk said other schools in the state have a similar program in place, but said TRCS doesn’t have a policy related to facility dogs at the moment. After the plan is agreed to by the board, she said she will look to obtain agreements with local vet offices and groomers to help care for the dog, obtain supply and monetary donations from area businesses and the community, and develop a communication plan for staff, students and the committee.

During board discussion following the presentation, the board agreed having such a program in place for the district would be a good thing to have. Board Treasurer Julia Awe asked if the dog would make trips to other buildings or just be exclusive to the high school, with Interim Superintendent Nikki Nash saying the plan would be to potentially have dogs in all of the schools.

“[Balk]’s the one we’ll start with, because she’s starting the process. She’ll be our guiding piece to this,” Nash said. “I know all the buildings have said something [about the program], and they’ve said ‘we’d like one too.’”

Trustee Nicole Cover said starting in one building before expanding to others would be a good idea. She also brought up an idea for creating a student campaign to help fundraise for donations to offset the costs.

“I think it would be nice to engage them and really make it their program,” Cover said. “I think the funding is fine, but I’d like to see other avenues just so we can make sure that funding is done appropriately. We don’t want to see something cut and then a human say, ‘well my funding got cut because of a golden retriever.’”

Trustee Kevin Hamilton said he agreed with doing fundraising to offset the cost, as there could be less-than-positive reactions from the community on the district spending money themselves on dogs over other district needs.

“I can see members of the community thinking, ‘the district spent $30,000 for dogs, and we have other needs in the district,’ so I think if we could bring some partners in, that would be a good thing,” Hamilton said.

Balk said she has talked with the Three Rivers Area Community Foundation and had the idea of doing a GoFundMe for the costs, but would need help navigating those waters since the district would have to own the dog due to liability.

Balk said her “big world dream” for the program is for the dogs to be part of a full social-emotional learning program for students.

“Being that we’re one of the bigger schools in the county, I think the potential to grow this into something that’s good for our kids and for our staff is certainly there, and all the research supports it,” Balk said.

In other business…

  • The board held a 79-minute long closed session to discuss discipline of two district students. Following the closed session, one student was placed on a long-term suspension and another was expelled for 180 days. The offenses the students had were not elaborated on by the board.
  • Interim Board Secretary Ben Karle said the board’s policy committee is looking at making “minor” changes to district policy for non-curricular clubs to look at roles staff can have and defining school-sponsored versus non-school-sponsored clubs.

Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 22 or robert@threeriversnews.com.

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