Appellate Win for School That Barred Service Dog

     (CN) – An elementary school that refused to let a student with cerebral palsy bring her service dog, Wonder, defeated the family’s claims in the Sixth Circuit.
     Stacy and Brent Fry say their community in Jackson County, Mich., helped them raise more than $13,000 so they could buy a mobility-assistance dog named Wonder for their daughter, Ehlena, a student of Ezra Eby Elementary School with cerebral palsy.
     By the time Wonder completed training in fall 2009, Ehlena was then 5 years old. School administrators cited the girl’s existing individualized education program, more commonly known as an IEP, in refusing to let Wonder attend classes.
     Since Ehlena’s IEP already included a human aide, the school said Wonder would not be able to provide any support that a human assistant could not.
     The Frys then began homeschooling Ehlena the next year and filed a complaint with the Department of Education.
     After the Office of Civil Rights sided with the Frys, finding that they suffered a violation the Americans with Disabilities Act, the school agreed to let Ehlena attend school with Wonder starting in fall 2012.
     The Frys instead enrolled Ehlena in a different district that offered no objection to the dog. They also filed suit the Jackson County Intermediate School District and Napoleon Community Schools, seeking damages for the school’s previous refusal to accommodate Wonder.
     A federal judge in Detroit dismissed the suit, however, after finding that the family had not exhausted their administrative remedies under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
     The Sixth Circuit affirmed on Friday.
     “Exhaustion is required at a minimum when the claim explicitly seeks redress for a harm that IDEA procedures are designed to and are able to prevent – a harm with educational consequences that is caused by a policy or action that might be addressed in an IEP,” Judge John Rogers wrote for a three-judge panel.
     The exhaustion requirement is intended to ensure that an education expert, rather than a court, makes decisions regarding the best way to educate disabled students, according to the judgment.
     “The Frys allege in effect that E.F.’s school’s decision regarding whether her service animal would be permitted at school denied her a free appropriate public education,” Rogers wrote. “In particular, they allege explicitly that the school hindered E.F. from learning how to work independently with Wonder, and implicitly that Wonder’s absence hurt her sense of independence and social confidence at school. This is thus the sort of dispute Congress, in enacting the IDEA, decided was best addressed at the first instance by local experts, educators, and parents.”
     By convening the IEP team to determine that a human assistant performed the same functions as Wonder, the school district began IDEA procedures, according to the ruling.
     The Frys failed to raise their claims then that the service dog would enhance Ehlena’s ability to succeed in school.
     “Had the Frys pursued IDEA procedures at this point, they would have achieved one of two outcomes,” Rogers wrote. “Either they would have prevailed and effectively resolved their dispute without litigation, making it possible for E.F. to attend school with Wonder, or else they would have failed but in the process generated an administrative record that would have aided the district court in evaluating their complaint.”

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