WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court said late last month that it will consider the case of a 12-year-old Jackson, Mich., girl with cerebral palsy and a goldendoodle named Wonder, deciding whether Ehlena Fry’s family can sue for damages from a school district that balked at the service dog’s presence in the classroom.

Stacy and Brent Fry brought the case against Napoleon Community Schools and the Jackson County Intermediate School District in 2012 under the Americans with Disabilities Act, arguing that school officials — who initially prohibited Ehlena from bringing Wonder to school — denied her equal access to programs and ultimately the chance to interact with other students at Ezra Eby Elementary.

“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 ADA,” said Michael Steinberg, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Michigan, which brought the suit with the Frys. “To force a child to choose between her independence and education is not only illegal, it is heartless.”

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In their opposition to the Supreme Court’s taking up the case, however, lawyers for the school district argued that Wonder’s initial barring from the classroom was because officials felt a human aide satisfied Ehlena’s needs and that if her family had followed standard procedures for challenging the districts’ decision, the dispute could have been resolved within months.

“The dispute whether Wonder could accompany (Ehlena) to school continued for nearly three years without 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,” wrote Timothy Mullins, a Troy, Mich. attorney representing the districts. “Most, if not all, of the alleged harm could have been avoided.”

At the heart of the case is an esoteric legal question: whether the Frys were required to exhaust their options under the IDEA — which calls for an administrative hearing and doesn’t allow for cash damages to be awarded — before bringing a claim under the ADA, as the Frys did. In their claim, they requested unspecified damages and attorney fees, but U.S. District Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled against them.

The Frys and the ACLU maintain there is also a conflict between the federal appellate circuits and how they apply the law, meaning the U.S. Supreme Court should settle the question. A hearing will be scheduled in the next term, which begins in October, and both sides will have a chance to argue before the high court.

The family says it bought Wonder for Ehlena — who was born with cerebral palsy, a condition that limits her motor skills and mobility but doesn’t impair cognitive abilities — in 2009, when she was 5 years old on the advice of a pediatrician. The dog was certified and trained and was able to help her retrieve dropped items, open and close doors, switch lights off and on, and perform other tasks.

But even though Ehlena’s pediatrician prescribed Wonder to be with Ehlena at all times to solidify their bond, the school district initially refused to let her bring the dog to school from October 2009 to April 2010. After lawyers intervened, Ehlena was allowed to bring Wonder to school for a “test period,” but the dog was required to sit at the back of the class — and she was prohibited from taking Wonder outside for recess or to the library or lunch.

At the end of the school year, the school district again prohibited Wonder altogether.

The Frys then home schooled Ehlena and filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) of the U.S. Department of Education, accusing the school district of violating the ADA. OCR found on the Frys’ behalf — after which the district agreed to permit the dog to return to the school with Ehlena. But after meeting with school officials, the Frys had what they called “serious concerns that the administration would resent (Ehlena) and make her return to school difficult.”

They ended up enrolling Ehlena in another school district altogether where the dog was welcomed.

The ACLU and the Frys said they were encouraged by the Supreme Court’s decision to take the case: In order to grant a hearing, four or more justices must agree that there are elements to a case that make it worth taking on.

“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. “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.”

© 2016 Detroit Free Press
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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