Ehlena Fry: Supreme Court To Consider Case Of Girl With Cerebral Palsy Who Sued School District For Barring Her Helper Dog

Ehlena Fry

Ehlena Fry, a Michigan girl with cerebral palsy who was barred from bringing her service dog to her junior high school, will get her day before the Supreme Court, CBS News is reporting. The Supreme Court announced Tuesday that it will consider the young lady. The court will decide if the 12-year-old and her family can sue the school district that refused to allow the goldendoodle in the girl’s classroom.

Fry’s family got her the dog, named “Wonder,” to help pick up items and open doors for her. School authorities initially refused to allow Wonder on the premises. They relented in 2010, but according to the parents of the young girl, the restrictions were far too many. The Frys eventually had to enroll their daughter in another school.

In 2012, Stacey Fry and her husband, Brent, filed a lawsuit against Napoleon Community Schools and the Jackson County Intermediate School District under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), arguing that the school prevented the dog on school premises, which stopped their daughter from participating in programs, which ultimately hindered her from socializing with other students.

The case was dismissed by a judge because the Frys had to seek an administrative hearing first. In 2015, an appeals court held the decision, 2-1. The justices on Tuesday said they would determine if the Fry family could sue the school district for flouting federal disability laws.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which represented the family, say the case is crucial because school districts have repeatedly stopped children with disabilities from bringing their service dogs to school. The districts have countered, saying it is not necessary to have these animals on school premises, adding that there are other means to provide assistance.

Lawyers for the school said Wonder was barred from the classroom because officials felt it was better for a human aide and not a dog to assist Ehlena. They also pointed out that the Fry family did not follow due procedure challenging the district’s decision, choosing to go to court instead of channeling their grievances through relevant authorities.

Timothy Mullins, an attorney representing the district, said the Frys failed to follow proper procedure instead of going straight to the courts.

“The dispute whether Wonder would accompany Ehlena to school continued for nearly three years without the petitioners utilizing IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) procedures. Had they done so, the dispute could have been resolved in less than 105 days.”

Mullins said if there were still issues after the Frys went through the IDEA process, they then had the right to go to court.

The ACLU is looking to have justices whittle down the legal red tape that will allow affected children head straight to court without preliminary hearings that can be costly and time-consuming. The Jackson County Intermediate School District says that there are easier means to settle this dispute, suggesting a roundtable discussion between parents and schools to come up with the best administrative solution possible.

Michael Steinberg, legal director for the ACLU of Michigan, said that the case could remove once and for all the legal barricades that have stopped victims of discrimination from getting justice. He added that “to force a child to choose between her independence and education is not only illegal … it is heartless.”

Ehlena’s pediatrician had recommended that her parents get her the service dog. The pediatrician said it was important for the dog and Ehlena to spend as much time as possible together to strengthen their bond. The school had balked at this idea between October, 2009, and April, 2010, but backtracked when lawyers intervened. The dog was allowed in for a “test period” but was mandated to stay at the back of the class. In addition, Ehlena was not allowed to move around with goldendoodle during school hours including lunch times, recess, or to the library. By the end of the school year, Wonder was barred entirely.

The Frys filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) of the U.S. Department of Education, accusing the school of violating the ADA. The school district allowed the child to return to the school, but the Frys withdrew their child after establishing “serious concerns that the administration would resent Ehlena and make her return to school difficult.” She was enrolled in another school that welcomed Wonder no restrictions.

Do you think a child with special needs should be allowed to bring her service dog to school?

[Image via Shutterstock/Susan Schmitz]