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Service Dog Case Goes to the U.S. Supreme Court

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Have you heard about the recent U.S. Supreme Court case involving a young girl and her service dog named Wonder?  This past Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a case involving Ehlena Fry, a young girl, and her service dog, Wonder, a hypoallergenic goldendoodle, and a school district that barred Wonder from its premises.

Ehlena, who was adopted by a couple in Michigan, was born with cerebral palsy, a condition that greatly limits her motor skills but not her cognitive ability.  When Ehlena was 5, her pediatrician recommended that her parents get a service dog to enable Ehlena to become more independent.  As a result, the Fry family raised the monies needed to obtain Wonder, a service dog, for Ehlena.

The Fry family talked to Ehlena’s school about the dog, but when Ehlena brought Wonder to class with her, she was told the service dog was not allowed.  Wonder was intended to help Ehlena perform more functions by herself to enable her to become more independent.  Wonder was trained to hit handicapped buttons for Ehlena; open and close doors; pick up items Ehlena dropped; and, most importantly, to stabilize Ehlena so that she could make transfers from her chair to her walks, or form a walker to a toilet seat.

Once the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) agreed to represent Ehlena, the school district allowed Wonder in school for a “trial period,” but it did not allow Ehlena to use him as a service dog.  In fact, Wonder was relegated to the back of the classroom and could not accompany Ehlena to recess, lunch, and other activities.  Then, at the end of the school year, the district said Wonder could not return in the fall.

Having a service dog for Ehlena, the Fry family maintains, is akin to having a service dog for a blind student instead of requiring the student to navigate the school by holding on to the arm of a teacher.

“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,” says Ehlena’s mother, Stacy Fry.

As a result, the Frys home-schooled Ehlena and then transferred her to another school district where Wonder was welcomed with open arms, a very different welcoming in contrast to the former school.  Wonder went to class and lunch with Ehlena; he was in the staff section of the yearbook; he had his own ID card; and he was in the class picture.  And, according to Ehlena’s mother, the relationship between dog and kid was integrated into the school seamlessly.

However, the school district has argued that if the Frys had simply followed the process under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), it would have likely been sorted out within months.

At the heart of the case is a legal question: whether the Frys were required to exhaust their options under the IDEA — which requires an administrative hearing and does not allow for monetary damages to be awarded prior to bringing a claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as the Frys did.  In their claim, they requested unspecified damages and attorney fees, but U.S. District Court and the 6th Circuit ruled against them.  However, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear this case.

The Fry’s lawyers and the ACLU, which has been working with the Frys, argue that prohibiting the service dog, Wonder, was not an educational matter but one that denied Ehlena her “independence at school and constituted discrimination at a public facility” — which falls under the ADA.

The family can sue for damages under the ADA, but only if the eight-member Supreme Court agrees with their interpretation of the case, which extends back several years.  The Frys brought the case against the Napoleon Community Schools and the Jackson County Intermediate School District, located in Michigan, in 2012.

The ACLU says the ruling, which should be available this coming summer, could impact students with disabilities across the country, if it allows them to sue under the ADA without first exhausting administrative procedures under the IDEA, which may not even provide the relief they seek.

You can view a video of Ehlena and Wonder here, which is shown below.

 

*The above image is courtesy of the ACLU.

 

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