COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - A group of students at Richland Northeast High School are being recognized for their work on a documentary entitled "Faux Paws," examining the 14th Amendment and the lack of regulations surrounding service dogs in the United States.
Juniors Wade Fletcher and Brandon Pendergrass, along with sophomore William Davidson created the 7-minute documentary over the several months last fall. Within it, the boys spoke with local public officials and PAALS, a local organization that provides training for service animals.
In January, the students submitted the documentary to C-SPAN's 2018 StudentCam competition. According to the contest website, judges received nearly 3,000 entries from 5,700 students, the most in the 14-year history of the competition.
They, along with another group from Richland Northeast, received honorable mention awards. Of the 3,000 entries, only 150 documentaries were selected to receive prizes.
"Normally I'm behind the camera, writing scripts, planning shots, writing shot lists not in front of the camera reading off the prompter, usually I leave that to someone else," Fletcher, said. "So that was a new experience for me."
Pendergrass said he spent most of his time reaching out to potential interview subjects, as well as contributing questions to ask interviewees. After doing some research on the 14th Amendment, he said his group decided to take a closer look at service animals.
"We decided maybe we should dig deeper and if there are actually any specific laws stating what you can and cannot do with a service dog and how easy it is to get one," he said. "We found out it can be a long training process, but I didn't think it was so easy to just fake one."
The boys spoke with Rebekah Woodford, a Columbia native who is a Navy veteran and suffers from PTSD. Her service dog, Piper, provides her relief in crowds, can fetch her medicine out of the cabinet and warns her if someone is coming up behind her.
"A lot of the businesses in the area know us, so they know Piper and they don't have a problem with it," she said. "But occasionally when we walk into a new store we get some resistance."
That resistance, Woodford said, comes from business owners being unfamiliar with ADA law and service animals being allowed inside with their owner. However, she said an increasing number of people acting as if their pets are service animals is compounding the problem.
"When somebody uses their pet as a service dog or portrays their pet as a service dog, it really changes the perspective of the stores," she said. "It causes them to question other dogs that come in that are actually service dogs. It really makes them question whether my dog, which has 6,000+ hours of training, is really a service dog."
As a result, the students took a look at how easy it is to purchase a service dog vest online. Within a few days, they purchased one and it arrived in the mail, much to their surprise.
"It was surprising how easy it was to get this stuff but also not surprising at the same time," Fletcher said. "It's not necessarily the government's place to limit what we can or cannot buy even if it might be immoral which is kind of where the grey area is when it comes to legislation and restrictions."
Currently in the United States, there is no certification or registry for service dogs. Some organizations, such as PAALS, are accredited to train service animals, but without regulations in place, pet owners can easily cheat the system.
Another group of students at Richland Northeast, who created the "Content Unavailable" documentary, also received honorable mention at the awards ceremony. Their project focused on the internet and the first amendment.
All of the students involved said the national awards are indicative of the convergence media program at the high school and its ability to teach students the pillars of journalism.
"We focus a lot on the process, getting the process right and when you get the process right, the product and the awards and everything that comes after are going to come with it," Fletcher said.