BOE approves comfort dog at Harris

Pilot program could be expanded in future

LEDGER – The Mitchell County Board of Education at its regular meeting this past week unanimously approved a decision to allow a pilot program of comfort dogs at Harris Middle School for one year.

The board heard a presentation from Harris Principal Michael Tountasakis about comfort dogs for the second time. Tountasakis first addressed the board about the topic during the regular May meeting, prompting the board to approve a pilot of the program, pending legal review. 

Henning reviewed the program and expressed concerns about the school system being liable in instances such as a dog bite or a student experiencing an allergic reaction. 

The board moved to invite Tountasakis back to discuss the program again and field additional questions. 

“This is research-supported,” Tountasakis said. “It doesn’t matter how good we are at teaching if the kids are in a bad place. This is unconditional love and acceptance.”

Tountasakis introduced the board to Ruby, the puppy who is slated to serve as the comfort dog at Harris. 

Burleson raised questions about the amount of training necessary for a comfort dog and what the dog’s duties would be. Henning, meanwhile, remained steadfast in his cautionary tone to the board. 

“I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about this,” he said. “As I’ve said before, I am a dog lover all day long. I’m not telling you this is the worst idea ever, but I also don’t know how to tell you there’s no risk.”

Board member Sam Blevins said any program carries a risk and made a motion to approve the pilot program. The motion died after no second was offered. 

“I want to do a bit more research myself,” Pitman said. 

The board started the discussion about the program again at a continuation of the meeting later in the week, and the one-year pilot was unanimously approved with the stipulation Tountasakis or other members of his staff will update the board on the program’s progress every other month, and the dog will undergo continual, rigorous training. 

Additionally, the board appropriated $2,500 for insurance purposes to help cover some liability. 

“We’ve stepped into other things without all the answers,” Burleson said. “All they’re asking for is a chance.”

The board expressed interest in trying similar programs at other county schools in the future but acknowledged that reviewing how the pilot goes at Harris is a good first step before making the program countywide.

The MItchell News

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