Detroit Free Press

Teacher claims principal stole dog

Ann Arbor district says it is school property

- Lily Altavena

An Ann Arbor kindergart­en teacher claims her school’s principal stole her beloved dog Gracie after a series of missteps in trying to introduce a therapy dog program to the school and after the school PTO spent more than $12,000 for dog training, according to a lawsuit filed in Washtenaw County Circuit Court on May 14.

Alexandria Fata said the school’s

Principal David DeYoung, aided by other district administra­tors, stole the Bernedoodl­e on April 29 after she informed DeYoung that she would be moving to New Jersey at the end of the school year, resigning her post as kindergart­en teacher. Fata, on a GoFundMe page and in court, claims she was encouraged by DeYoung to adopt Gracie in December 2021 and introduce the animal as the school’s therapy dog. Gracie became a part of Fata’s family and a fixture in their lives: She lived with her and her partner, Fata walked Gracie daily and supplied her with prescripti­on dog food.

But suddenly, Gracie was gone one school day – taken by the principal after they couldn’t agree over how to handle

Fata’s move, she said – and has yet to return to school. Her kindergart­ners miss Gracie.

“It’s heartbreak­ing,” she said in an interview with the Detroit Free Press. “It’s so hard to think about because she has lived with me for two years and I own her and she’s my dog.”

The district claims in a letter addressed to Fata’s attorney that Gracie is school district property and that Fata was just the doodle’s primary handler. DeYoung did not respond to an email or voicemail from the Detroit Free Press seeking comment. Andrew Cluley, a spokesman for the district, declined to

answer specific questions and instead wrote, “The Ann Arbor Public Schools does not comment on pending litigation.”

But Fata’s suit claims DeYoung often reinforced the idea that the educator was Gracie’s owner in text and email messages up until Fata indicated she might someday leave Wines Elementary. Fata in the suit is asking for Gracie to be returned to her and compensati­on for damages she has suffered.

The district also implemente­d its therapy dog program haphazardl­y, Fata’s suit claims. DeYoung used $12,500 from the school’s parent-teacher organizati­on for training only for Gracie to exhibit behavioral issues. Unlike other districts, the suit claims Ann Arbor’s board never adopted a formal therapy dog policy, which might have helped clarify Gracie’s ownership. A Free Press search could not find an official therapy dog policy.

The calamity over therapy dog ownership comes in a tumultuous era for Ann Arbor Public Schools, facing a $25 million budget crisis and anticipate­d layoffs.

Ann Arbor’s school therapy dog program

One fact in the case appears undisputed: Wines Elementary Principal David DeYoung likes dogs. It’s noted on his online school district biography, which states he lives with his wife, two sons and two dogs, Wagner and Piper.

“We clearly like dogs and spend lots of time outdoors as a family and with the dogs,” he wrote.

Fata’s suit claims DeYoung asked Wines educators whether any would be open to volunteeri­ng to adopt a dog to become a part of the program in December 2021 after another district elementary, Abbot, added a therapy dog to its campus. DeYoung wrote to teachers that he was “very interested in bringing a dog to Wines,” bolding the word “very” in a copy of the email included in Fata’s complaint as an exhibit.

According to the suit, Fata expressed interest and DeYoung was able to secure the donation of Gracie from a breeder and $12,500 in PTO funds to pay for Gracie’s training with The Up’N’Up Pup, a training business based in Clinton Township run by Greg Lambart, another defendant listed on Fata’s complaint.

Fata’s lawsuit claims DeYoung failed to use a competitiv­e bid process and that Lambart used a shock collar to help train Gracie, which precluded her from being certified as a therapy dog by Therapy Dogs Internatio­nal, one of a handful of organizati­ons that certifies therapy dogs. DeYoung wrote to members of the PTO in an email in February 2022 included in the complaint that Lambart’s organizati­on already had a relationsh­ip with the district. Lambart worked with three of the district’s therapy dogs, according to a district news release.

After six months with Lambart, Gracie came to live with Fata in November 2022. According to the lawsuit, Lambart signed a transfer of ownership to Fata.

Gracie had behavioral issues, Fata quickly learned. She barked at strangers, was scared of noises, pulled on her leash and was reactive to other animals. When she told the principal she was struggling, according to screenshot­s of text messages included in the complaint, DeYoung wrote, “Gracie is YOUR dog and will be for many years,” further affirming to Fata that she was Gracie’s owner.

Gracie was rambunctio­us and required a lot of work from Fata and her partner. They walked her three times a day sometimes to help drain her energy and they’d still sometimes see Gracie in the backyard excitedly playing fetch with herself.

Both in and out of the classroom, Gracie was Fata’s companion. When Fata was sad, Gracie came to cuddle her. She snuggled with Fata and her partner before bed.

“It feels like a huge loss, our house has completely changed,” Fata said.

Who owns Gracie?

Around August 2023, Fata wanted clarity and an official document around Gracie’s ownership, according to the complaint. The contract Fata proposed made her the clear owner and made her rights to move away clear. When she brought up the idea of a contract, DeYoung wrote in an email that “Gracie is ‘your’ dog and not owned by the school or district.” But added that the dog was a part of the school community and that Fata would need to transfer Gracie’s ownership if she ever left Wines.

This concerned Fata enough to call a meeting with DeYoung, who she claims in the suit backtracke­d and reassured her that if she were ever to leave, Gracie would stay with her.

This March, however, when Fata informed DeYoung she would be moving and proposed a transition plan for Gracie, DeYoung became angry, according to the complaint. He implied that Fata would be on the hook to pay back Gracie’s training costs as Fata became more and more emotional. And he told her that Gracie would have to stay at Wines, Fata could not keep her.

Over the next month, Fata and DeYoung, with other district officials now involved, could not agree on Gracie’s ownership. She offered to pay back some training costs and help find a new therapy dog, but DeYoung seemed adamant that Gracie needed to stay.

As a part of her routine during the first few minutes of every school day, Fata crated Gracie in DeYoung’s office because Gracie was apt to become anxious in the chaos. Then, Gracie would usually join Fata in her classroom for the day.

On April 29, Gracie didn’t come back to Fata’s classroom and instead, the kindergart­en teacher was pulled into a meeting in the middle of class time with DeYoung, Executive Director or Early Childhood and Elementary Education Melita Alston and Executive Director of Elementary Education Matthew Hilton. They told her, according to the lawsuit, that DeYoung had taken Gracie and would not give her back to Fata.

“I was very, very, very sad, very emotional – hysterical,” she said. “I didn’t understand.”

Fata had a substitute teacher cover her class for the rest of the day. Gracie wasn’t in the office with her crate. Fata became more upset. No one asked about Gracie’s food or medical condition, which requires her to have a certain type of food to minimize the risk of pancreatit­is. According to the lawsuit, Fata was listed as Gracie’s owner on veterinary and microchip documents.

Therapy dogs are a booming program in Michigan schools, including in Walled Lake, Oxford and Brighton Area Schools.

Ownership of therapy dogs appears to vary by district. In Brighton, a district policy states, “Therapy dogs are the personal property of the dog owner and are not owned by the District.” In Walled Lake, however, the district writes that its program is unique because the animals are owned by individual schools rather than people.

Fata and her attorneys believe Gracie is with Lambart, in Clinton Township, but have been unable to get her back. Lambart did not respond to a phone call and voicemail from the Detroit Free Press.

In a letter from Ann Arbor Public Schools’ attorney Anne-Marie Welch with the law firm Clark Hill to Fata’s attorney, Welch wrote that the school’s PTO “would have never provided $12,500 in training costs for a district staff member’s dog” and listed multiple donors who have paid for Gracie’s ongoing care, including grooming and vet care, as services for the district, not for Fata.

Fata said she has wanted to figure this out in a fair way, instead of having to take drastic measures.

“I just wish that we could have figured it out,” she said. “Just by sitting down and having conversati­ons and listening.”

Sam Estenson, with Doerr MacWilliam­s Howard, one of the law firms representi­ng Fata, said the response from the district has been surprising given the current budget deficit and much larger issues facing Ann Arbor Public Schools.

“Given everything that’s going on, it’s just shocking to me, it seems like a matter of priority and prioritiza­tion,” he said. “I have two kids in the district, two young kids, and so they’re gonna lose support staff and teachers at their school. And at some point, there’s a room full of executives, who looked at the situation like, ‘We have got to get Clark Hill, we’ve got to push back on this.’ “

Fata is worried about Gracie’s well-being, unsure of how she is being treated or how she’s faring without her favorite toys or familiar routines.

“I’m worried for Gracie, because she hasn’t seen me in three weeks,” she said. “I know that, that has to be very stressful.”

 ?? PROVIDED BY ALEXANDRIA FATA ?? Alexandria “Lexi” Fata with Gracie, a Bernedoodl­e she says she adopted in order to become a therapy dog for Ann Arbor Public Schools.
PROVIDED BY ALEXANDRIA FATA Alexandria “Lexi” Fata with Gracie, a Bernedoodl­e she says she adopted in order to become a therapy dog for Ann Arbor Public Schools.
 ?? PROVIDED BY ALEXANDRIA FATA ?? Alexandria “Lexi” Fata with Gracie, a Bernedoodl­e she says she adopted in order to become a therapy dog for Ann Arbor Public Schools. Fata is now suing after she claims Ann Arbor administra­tors stole Gracie from her in a battle over ownership.
PROVIDED BY ALEXANDRIA FATA Alexandria “Lexi” Fata with Gracie, a Bernedoodl­e she says she adopted in order to become a therapy dog for Ann Arbor Public Schools. Fata is now suing after she claims Ann Arbor administra­tors stole Gracie from her in a battle over ownership.

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