Family, School District Head To Supreme Court Over Service Dog Battle

The family is hoping that if other disabled children are denied their service pets in school, then they will be allowed to take the case straight to federal court.

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In 2009, when she was 5 years old, Ehlena got Wonder to help her with a number of tasks. Today they are with their family and lawyers fighting for children with disabilities. Via ACLU/NPR
Cari Jorgensen

Cerebral palsy is a condition that limits a person’s motor skills. Ehlena Fry was born with it. Since her physical abilities were not the same as able-bodied children, her pediatrician told her parents to consider getting her a service dog.

After raising $13,000 and training with the Goldendoodle, 5-year-old Ehlena got a service dog named Wonder, NPR reports. Since Ehlena’s cognitive abilities were not limited by the cerebral palsy, she went to school. Wonder was intended to help the then-kindergartner perform functions on her own, gain strength and become more independent. He’s been trained to open and close doors for Ehlena, stabilize her when she transfers from a sitting position to a walker and vice versa, as well as pick up any dropped items and pressing handicap buttons, according to NPR.

However, even though the Frys reportedly spoke to their daughter’s school in Jackson County, Michigan, about her service dog, when the dog was brought to class, they were informed service dogs were not allowed.

The school district’s “legal position is that under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the district was already paying for an aide to help Ehlena physically in school and that the dog was unnecessary,” according to NPR. The Frys argue that a dog brings Ehlena more independence, as opposed to having to rely on a teacher or aide for help.

Stacy Fry, Ehlena’s mother, told NPR, “One of our whole goals in getting Wonder for her was that eventually, the more she was able to use Wonder and navigate her environment, that she would need the aide less and less.”

The dispute resulted in mediation, which led to a 30-day trial with Wonder at school with Ehlena. Stacy told NPR that there was a lot of animosity during the trial and that Wonder was not allowed in the classroom or lunchroom. The trial did not result in Wonder being allowed to stay. The school maintained its no dog policy because a couple of children and a teacher were allergic and another child – who had been attacked by a dog – was now scared of them.

Fortunately, after a school district change, Wonder was accepted and Ehlena and her service dog integrated nicely into the school.

The Frys have since sued the previous school district. The suit, which is filed under the Americans with Disabilities Act, among other federal laws, asks for monetary damages for emotional distress Ehlena, now 12 years old, suffered while at the previous school. Stacy told NPR that the suit isn’t about money, but rather about forging a path for other children who have service animals.

The cases heard in the lower courts have been losses for the Fry family, who is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, but they hope the Supreme Court will rule that parents can take the case straight to federal court if their disabled child is denied the right to have a service animal with them in school — rather than exhaust state administrative remedies.

The National School Boards Association is backing the school district, which maintains that allowing suits to go straight to federal court could be very costly to school districts. NPR reports that the board notes that “6 million disabled children are covered by the law that guarantees individualized special education for disabled children, and that that law requires parents to exhaust administrative appeals before going to court to challenge and education plan.”

The decision now lies in the hands of the Supreme Court, which is expected by summer.

What do you think of this case? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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