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We can't work it out 

To call Veren Betzen a Beatles fan grossly understates the teenager's fanatical love for the band. A history buff and junior docent at the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, Veren knows when each Beatle was born and shares an interesting fact: John's birth came during Hitler's brutal bombing campaign of England.

And while he first says he loves all the members equally, he later admits Lennon is his favorite.

"I like John," he says, "because I am thinking of becoming a rebel."

Veren has cerebral palsy quadriplegia caused by damage to his brain from birth. He has limited control over his arms and hands and almost no control over his legs. It is a labor for him to speak.

From second grade on, Veren relied on his service dog, Comet. Trained to pick up anything that Veren dropped, to open and close doors and drawers, and carry books, Comet accompanied Veren everywhere, especially to school in District 11.

In 2002, Helen Keller School, Veren's elementary school, helped raise money for him and his mom, Verlene, to go through training in California and bring Comet home for the first time. In 2009, when one of Comet's legs had to be amputated, the Denver Post ran a story and online video about Veren and Comet in class at Russell Middle School.

And then Veren reached Doherty High, where a teacher complained of an allergic reaction to the dog.

In November, Doherty principal Dennis Vigil banned Comet. District administrators defended the move, saying the dog made the teacher's working environment unsafe. Further, D-11 noted that Comet wasn't part of Veren's individual education plan, used and updated annually for students with certain disabilities.

Verlene says she'd never brought up the service dog in an IEP meeting because it never had been an issue. So she fought back, citing the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The school refused to budge.

She requested an IEP meeting, but, she says, the district refused. "If a parent asks for an IEP meeting," she says, "you have to hold an IEP meeting." Instead, there was a pre-IEP meeting at which she was informed that Comet was not considered "academic."

Desperate, Verlene filed a complaint with the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. She won. OCR found the district violated Veren's civil rights, and though it didn't rule on the "academic" argument, it did state that D-11 had not "carefully considered and documented its decision with regard to this dispute."

In response, D-11 has been forced to institute remedial actions, including staff training. Dr. Mary Thurman, D-11 deputy superintendent, points out that as of this month the district has adopted a policy that states "individuals with disabilities, including students, employees and visitors, may be accompanied by Service Animals in District facilities and vehicles, on District grounds and at District functions."

She declines to say specifically whether this policy came in response to Veren's case.

If Veren were to bring a dog to school now, things might be different. But Veren won't be doing that. He's enrolled in an online school instead. The battle over Comet, who died in January, was like an attack on his self-esteem, he says.

"Veren was saying, 'Mom, why should I even go to school and get an education when nobody wants me anyway?'" Verlene says. "It's really horrible to hear your child say that."

chet@csindy.com

  • Teen wins service-dog battle but walks away from D-11 high school.

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