Service Dogs in School: A Girl with a Disability and her Service Dog

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has recently found what we all know in our hearts to be true: nothing should come between a girl and her dog, and there is a place for service dogs in school.

Well, that’s definitely a paraphrase. Actually, the case concerns Ehlena Fry, a 13-year-old with cerebral palsy, and Wonder, her service dog. The ruling from SCOTUS ends a protracted battle in which Ehlena and her family fought for her right to sue her school to have Wonder accompany her to class.

Ehlena’s cerebral palsy limits her physical abilities severely. When she was 5 years old, her pediatrician recommended a service dog to her family. The idea was that a service animal could help her function more independently and build her confidence.

Service animals aren’t cheap, but Ehlena’s hometown of Brooklyn, Michigan, rallied behind her and helped her family raise the $13,000 they needed to get her the service dog she needed. The community really got involved and did what they could to help this friendly child and her family; they held a basketball tournament at a local school and even contributed their own money when they could. Together they raised enough to allow Ehlena to bring home Wonder: a fluffy white goldendoodle who had been well-trained to assist a child with disabilities.

Ehlena and Wonder built a special bond quickly, according to the ACLU of Michigan, and as they did, Ehlena’s abilities and independence grew. Wonder helped Ehlena by picking up things that she dropped, turning on lights, helping her take off her coat, and opening doors for her. The certified service dog also helped his girl balance; this allowed her to move from her walker to the toilet or a chair.

With all of this help, Ehlena was ready to go to kindergarten—but that’s where the trouble began. Once at school the administration said that service dogs in school were not allowed, and that humans could help Ehlena in all of the same ways. However, the point of employing a service dog in cases like this is to help the person with disabilities be independent of aides.

“One of our whole goals in getting Wonder for her was that eventually, the more she was able to use Wonder and navigate her environment, that she would need the aide less and less,” Ehlena’s mother, Stacy Fry, told NPR.

The school allowed a “30-day trial period,” but the trial period was basically a sham. Wonder was allowed into Ehlena’s classroom, but he couldn’t sit with her, or accompany her to lunch or recess. Once the 30 days was up, the no service dogs in school policy was back in effect. Ehlena’s family homeschooled her until they found an alternative.

Ehlena transferred to a school in nearby Manchester, Michigan. At her new school, Ehlena and Wonder were able to sit and work together, and Ehlena wasn’t the only child who benefitted. All of her classmates learned from the experience, too:

“It was amazing, and they were so accepting,” Ehlena’s mom told NPR. “It was such a teaching tool, for the other kids.”

Ehlena and her family had to make a decision. Now that she was in a better school, should she still continue to fight?

The Fry family realized that a lawsuit in Ehlena’s case had the potential to help all kids with disabilities who needed service dogs in school, and that’s why they pursued the case. With the help of the ACLU of Michigan, the family sued Ehlena’s first school for Ehlena’s emotional distress under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The point of the lawsuit is to help children with disabilities who use service animals; the aim is to ensure that no one else has the same negative experience.

On October 31, 2016 SCOTUS heard Ehlena’s case. The decision was handed down on February 22, 2017.

The SCOTUS decision refocused the case on Ehlena’s attempts to reach emotional and physical independence. Although the lower courts focused on the steps they thought the family should take as part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) process, SCOTUS founds that those steps weren’t even necessary.

The Frys shouldn’t be forced to negotiate with school officials, the court reasoned, because they were not concerned with details of her education. Instead, they were concerned about her ability to maintain her newfound independence with the help of her dog. In this sense, SCOTUS found the case to resemble an ADA access case:

“Nothing in the nature of the Frys’ suit suggests any implicit focus on the adequacy of (Ehlena’s) education,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote. “The Frys could have filed essentially the same complaint if a public library or theater had refused admittance to Wonder.”

Michael J. Steinberg, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, drove home the point, and emphasized the importance of the issue of service dogs in school:

“Ehlena Fry and her family, including Wonder, will be at U.S. Supreme Court … so that other kids with disabilities won’t have to experience the humiliation and discrimination Ehlena experienced in kindergarten. It is not only illegal, but it is cruel to make a student choose between her education and her independence. Rather, all students with disabilities should be treated with kindness, dignity and love that Ehlena received in Manchester. A win in the Supreme Court will help tear down barriers to independence for students with disabilities not only in Michigan, but throughout the country.”

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