The case, Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court last Wednesday. The majority opinion, by Justice Elena Kagan, confirmed that the parents of Ehlena Fry can sue school officials for not letting their child bring a service dog with her to school.
Ehlena Fry is a 12 year old girl who wanted to bring her service dog with her to school to assist her with her daily needs. Suffering from cerebral palsy, Ehlena needed help picking up things, turning on and off lights, taking off her coat, using the bathroom, and so on. The district school, located in Napoleon, Michigan, denied this service dog to Ehlena, stating that she already had a human aide to assist her with her needs.
After several meetings with the school district and Ehlena’s parents, she was finally allowed to bring her dog with her on a trial basis to do limited activities. After this trial period the school district decided that the dog could no longer be brought to school. Ehlena was then removed from this school district by her parents and placed in a different school district, which was much more welcoming to the service dog.
The denial of a service dog to 12 year old Ehlena Fry challenged two federal civil rights laws used to accommodate people with disabilities. The Frys filed a lawsuit in federal district court alleging that the barring of the service dog from the school violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. The Americans with Disabilities Act prevents state and local level governments from discriminating against people with disabilities. Similarly, the Rehabilitation Act prohibits discrimination by entities that receive federal funding.
The district court dismissed this case drawing on the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law that guarantees “free appropriate public education” to children with disabilities. The court stated that under this federal law, families must undergo administrative remedies and proceedings before filing any sort of lawsuit pursuant to the American with Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act. This in short meant the fact that the Frys could not sue the district until they went through this lengthy IDEA process, which involved trying to resolve the issue with the school district directly.
The Supreme Court overturned this decision stating that the only relief that can be given under IDEA is when there is denial of a free appropriate public education. Since the Frys were not denying the fact that Ehlena got an appropriate education, rather that there was emotional distress caused by the situation, it was not pursuant to this law. The Frys were asking the court to compensate them for injuries to their daughter’s independence and costs for tutoring and therapy that would be needed to help her catch up. Therefore, the Supreme Court ruled that Frys had the constitutional right to sue the school district based on damages faced by their daughter.
This case is thought to be a very big win for children with disabilities nationwide. Children with disabilities should not have to face the humiliation of using a toilet with the stall open and several adults watching, as the Frys indicated in their arguments. The ability to have service dogs gives children with disabilities equal opportunities for independence in a schooling environment and the chance to feel more equal to their peers.