This fall, while students across the country are meeting new teachers and packing their school bags, the US Supreme Court will hear a case about the use of service dogs in the classroom.
On Tuesday, June 28, the U.S. Supreme Court said it will will decide if Ehlena Fry’s family can sue the 12-year-old’s former school district for violating the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) by banning Wonder, her service dog, from the classroom.
The decision comes almost four years after Brent and Stacy Fry, Ehlena’s parents, initially sued Napoleon Community Schools and the Jackson County Intermediate School District. They argue that the school breached federal disability laws by not allowing Ehlena to be accompanied by her prescribed service dog. Initially, the lawsuit was dismissed, and that dismissal was upheld by an appeals court in 2015. When the Frys appealed again to the high court, it was decided that they could sue the district for violating ADA.
According to Todd Spangler of the Detroit Free Press, the district argued that Ehlena’s needs were being met by an aide; therefore, a service dog was not needed. In addition, Timothy Mullins, a Troy attorney representing the district, argued that the family should have gone through administrative hearings with the district under IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). Had they done so, the dispute could have been resolved, according to Mullins.
Serving the family in court is the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan. According to the ACLU, Ehlena is not alone, and that school districts across the country have denied students with disabilities their right to bring service dogs to school.
“This case could once and for all remove unfair legal hurdles for victims of discrimination across the country that prevent them from seeking justice guaranteed by the Americans with Disabilities Act,” said Michael J. Steinberg, legal director of the ACLU, in a June 28 press release. “To force a child to choose between her independence and her education is not only illegal, it is heartless.”
Fry, who is now a 12 years old, has spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy. This condition limits her motor skills and mobility, but not her cognitive ability, according to a past lawsuit. Her family says that in 2009, Ehlena was prescribed a service dog by her pediatrician. The community helped Fry and her family raise $13,000 for the then 5-year-old girl’s certified and trained goldendoodle, Wonder.
The dog helps Ehlena with gross motor tasks she struggles with, such as opening doors, shutting off lights, or picking up dropped items. The family claims the dog has helped Ehlena “gain independence,” which has been their “goal for her,” according to a YouTube video posted by the ACLU.
When Ehlena was eight, a special education team at Exra Eby Elementary School, where Ehlena attended, determined she did not need Wonder via an individual education plan (IEP). Ehlena went to school without her service dog from October 2009 to April 2010. Ehlena and Wonder were then granted a “30-day trial period.” However, Wonder was required to sit at the back of the classroom and was not allowed to go out to recess with Ehlena. At the end of the school year, the district banned Wonder altogether.
“As a parent, I’ll never forget the smile on Ehlena’s face when she first began working with Wonder and was able to do things on her own without my help,” said her mom, Stacy, in an article in The Detroit Free Press by Todd Spangler. “We’re hopeful that the Supreme Court will make it clear that school can’t treat children with disabilities differently and stand in the way of their independence.”