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Fry v. Napoleon: Disabled girl takes battle for service dog to Supreme Court

Fry v. Napoleon: A girl who has been diagnosed with cerebral palsy and her trained service dog are bringing their case to the Supreme Court, a move that could determine the relationship between the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

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    To force a child to choose between her independence and her education is not only illegal, it is heartless. For more than 20 years, the Americans with Disabilities Act has required schools to accommodate students with disabilities to guarantee that they have equal access to education, a fundamental value that seems to be lost on the Napoleon School District.
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The Supreme Court of the United States is set to hear a case on Monday that revolves around a disabled girl, her service dog, and whether that animal should have been allowed to accompany her to school.

Ehlena Fry, now 12, was told by her Napoleon, Mich., elementary school in 2009 that her goldendoodle, Wonder, could not join her on the premises because human aides were on hand to assist her – a position her parents say neglected to account for the vital bond between people and their service animals, which must be reinforced by constant accompaniment.

Yet the case now before the high court is not a simple question of whether the school should have allowed Wonder to join Ehlena in class. Rather, it addresses the overlap between two acts, and whether the Frys pursued the correct course of action in seeking redress. The outcome could set important precedent for similar cases in the future.

“Ehlena Fry and her family, including Wonder, will be at US Supreme Court on Monday so that other kids with disabilities won’t have to experience the humiliation and discrimination Ehlena experienced in kindergarten,” said Michael Steinberg, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, whose organization is representing Ehlena’s family.

A win in the Supreme Court will help tear down barriers to independence for students with disabilities not only in Michigan,” added Mr. Steinberg, “but throughout the country.”

Ehlena was 5 when her parents obtained Wonder, and after her school’s initial refusal to allow the dog on site, meetings involving attorneys of both the family and the school district achieved a compromise: Wonder could come along for a trial period.

Yet even during that time, Wonder’s assistance was limited. The dog was unable, for instance, to accompany Ehlena to the restroom or recess. And when the trial came to an end, the school decided that Wonder’s presence would no longer be permitted.

Ehlena’s parents withdrew her from that establishment, homeschooled her for two years, and then enrolled her in elementary school in a neighboring county, one that welcomed Wonder from the outset.

In December 2012, Ehlena’s parents brought a lawsuit against the school in Napoleon, saying that its refusal to allow Wonder to accompany their daughter violated both the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, both of which prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities.

The federal district court and subsequently the US Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit dismissed the case, basing their ruling on the Handicapped Children’s Protection Act. Under that legislation, they argued, a family was required to attempt all possible administrative remedies provided in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) before filing a lawsuit.

It is this ruling that the Supreme Court will now consider. Ehlena’s family insists they were under no obligation to pursue all remedies provided under IDEA because they are not alleging that this legislation was violated. Instead of suggesting that their daughter’s education suffered, they assert it was her independence that was affected by the school’s decision.

The school district counters that it is irrelevant whether the family is pursuing action under IDEA or not, saying that if the family is seeking something that “may be obtained” through that act, then they are under obligation to go through IDEA’s processes before resorting to court.

In the eyes of the school district, a ruling in their favor would reinforce the idea that parents and school administrators are the ones with the necessary expertise to resolve disputes over educational needs, not “generalist courts.”

A brief in support of Ehlena’s family from the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates avers instead that such a ruling would “create onerous, time-consuming, expensive, and confusing procedural hurdles that will hinder families in vindicating distinct” rights.

A decision is expected next year.

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