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Case of Girl Forbidden from Bringing Service Dog to School Heads to SCOTUS

Ehlena Fry has cerebral palsy and was given a doctor-prescribed goldendoodle to help her with tasks. A school in Michigan created numerous obstacles for Fry to bring the dog to class, which the Fry family claims is a violation of the Americans with...
June 29, 2016, 8:05pm
Courtesy of the ACLU

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the appeal of a girl who wasn't allowed to bring her service dog to school in Michigan.

Twelve-year-old Ehlena Fry has cerebral palsy, and in 2008 she acquired a doctor-prescribed service dog named Wonder. Wonder, a hypoallergenic goldendoodle, was given to Ehlena to help her with everyday tasks, like balancing, opening doors, and using the bathroom, and to help her develop independence. But in 2009, when she was five years old, Ehlena's school refused to allow Wonder to accompany her to school. In 2012, Ehlena's parents sued the school, its principal, and the school district for its refusal to accommodate the dog, but the lawsuit was dismissed by the district court.

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The school, Ezra Eby Elementary School, said that because Ehlena would have help from a human aide for her Individualized Education Program, bringing the dog was unnecessary. The district refused to recognize Wonder as a service dog despite his official certification, according to court documents, and claimed he might cause allergic reactions in the school's staff members and students — despite the fact that the district's policy did allow for "guide dogs" for blind children. In 2010, Fry was finally allowed to bring Wonder to school, but his presence was subject to harsh restrictions: He couldn't even sit next to Ehlena during class or go to recess with her.

Further, the school threatened to eliminate Ehlena's human aide from her IEP if her parents insisted on having Wonder accompany her in school. In a press release, ACLU of Michigan legal director Michael J. Steinberg said, "To force a child to choose between her independence and her education is not only illegal, it is heartless."

To force a child to choose between her independence and her education is not only illegal, it is heartless.

According to court documents, "The Frys alleged the following particular injuries: denial of equal access to school facilities, denial of the use of Wonder as a service dog, interference with E.F.'s ability to form a bond with Wonder, denial of the opportunity to interact with other students at Ezra Eby Elementary School, and psychological harm caused by the defendants' refusal to accommodate E.F. as a disabled person." The alleged injuries are violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and Michigan state disability law.

However, the Frys' lawsuit was dismissed, and the district court said the Frys' issue "would be best dealt with through the administrative process," which they had yet to exhaust. The Frys appealed to no avail, so they appealed again, this time to the Supreme Court. SCOTUS announced Tuesday it will weigh in on the case.

Circuit Judge Martha Craig Daughtrey says the district's court dismissal of the Frys' suit was "inappropriately premature."

"It is difficult to fathom what could have been gained by requiring the Frys to undergo additional 'exhaustion' before filing suit," Daughtrey writes in her dissent. "The stupefying fact, as noted previously, is that the school district's policy would explicitly have permitted Ehlena to have a guide dog at school if she were blind, but was not interpreted to allow the use of a service dog as a reasonable accommodation for her mobility handicap—even in the face of federal regulations establishing that any distinction between a guide dog and a service dog is purely semantic."

This fall, the Supreme Court justices will decide whether or not Ehlena's parents can sue the school district. The Obama administration stands with the Frys, the AP reports, and believe the appeals court's decision to uphold the lawsuit's dismissal was wrong and "leads to unsound results."

Because cases like Ehlena's are common, the ACLU hopes the justices will weigh in favor of her case. Steinberg says, "This case could once and for all remove unfair legal hurdles for victims of discrimination across the county that prevent them from seeking justice guaranteed by the Americans with Disabilities Act."