School District Discriminated Against Girl and Her Service Dog, ACLU Contends in Federal Lawsuit
The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a federal lawsuit today on behalf of an eight-year-old student with cerebral palsy who was barred from bringing her doctor-prescribed service dog to school. The lawsuit was filed against the Napoleon School District and the Jackson County Intermediate School District for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
“To force a child to choose between her independence and her education is not only illegal, it is heartless,” said Michael J. Steinberg, ACLU of Michigan Legal Director. “For more than 20 years, the Americans with Disabilities Act has required schools to accommodate students with disabilities to guarantee that they have equal access to education, a fundamental value that seems to be lost on the Napoleon School District.”
Because Ehlena Fry has a severe form of cerebral palsy that affects her legs, arms and body, she needs assistance with many of her daily tasks. In October 2009, Ehlena’s family took a major step to help Ehlena become independent when they acquired Wonder, a Goldendoodle that is specially trained to help Ehlena balance, retrieve dropped items, open and close doors, turn on lights and perform many other tasks. Wonder is hypoallergenic and has been trained to stay out of the way when he is not working.
Watch a video of Ehlena and her service dog, Wonder
Before registering Ehlena for kindergarten at Ezra Eby Elementary School in Napoleon, the Frys advised the school of their decision to acquire a service dog for Ehlena. The community helped raise the necessary funds to obtain Wonder. However, after Wonder was trained in Ohio and returned to Michigan, the district barred Ehlena from bringing Wonder to school. The ACLU of Michigan intervened, sending a letter to the district, which warned that the district’s actions violate the ADA.
“All any parent wants is for their child to be happy, healthy and independent. Wonder helps Ehlena achieve all of this and more,” said Stacy Fry, Ehlena’s mother. “From the very first moment Ehlena began working with Wonder, we could see a huge difference – she was slowly growing more confident and self-reliant. Separating them at such a crucial time in their bonding and training hurt us all.”
In April 2010, after months of mediation, Ehlena’s school district agreed to allow Wonder to accompany her at school for a “trial period.” Wonder was forbidden by administrators from assisting Ehlena with many tasks he had been specifically trained to do.
Instead, Wonder was required to remain in the back of the room during class and was not allowed to accompany Ehlena during recess, lunch, computer lab, library time and other activities.
Wonder had been accompanying Ehlena to Sunday school, Girls Scout Daisy meetings, and other community functions without complaint and without distracting other participants. At the end of the school year, the district would not acknowledge that Wonder was a service dog, and would not discuss whether they would agree to his return in the Fall.
Due to the district’s decision, the Frys felt that separating Ehlena and Wonder for several hours a day could prove disastrous for Wonder’s training and bonding and made the difficult decision to homeschool Ehlena using an online curriculum.
With the help of the ACLU, they also filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) at the United States Department of Education. In May 2012, the OCR issued a finding that the school district violated Ehlena’s rights under the ADA.
In order to settle the matter with OCR, the school district reluctantly agreed to allow Ehlena to attend school with Wonder. However, after meeting with school administrators, Ehlena’s parents continued to have serious concerns about the school’s attitude toward Ehlena.
Therefore, the Frys enrolled Ehlena in a public school in Washtenaw County where the staff welcomed Ehlena and Wonder and saw their presence as an opportunity to promote diversity and inclusion of students with disabilities within the school.
The lawsuit contends that by failing to make reasonable modifications to their policies and practices, the school district discriminated against Ehlena based on her disability in violation of federal and state laws including the ADA and the Michigan Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act.
In addition to Steinberg, the Frys are represented by ACLU of Michigan Cooperating Attorneys Peter Kellett, James Hermon and Brandon Blazo of the Dykema law firm as well as Gayle Rosen and Denise Heberle of Ann Arbor.