High Court to Sniff Out Service-Dog Denial

     (CN) – An elementary school must defend before the U.S. Supreme Court why it refused to let a service dog named Wonder accompany a student with cerebral palsy, the justices said Tuesday.
     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.
     Ehlena was 5 years old by the time Wonder completed training in fall 2009, but school administrators refused to let Wonder attend classes.
     Ehlena’s existing individualized education program, more commonly known as an IEP, already included a human aide, and the school contended that Wonder would not be able to provide any support that a human assistant could not.
     The Frys 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 Frys petitioned the Supreme Court for review after the Sixth Circuit affirmed last year.
     Though the justices took up the case Tuesday, they did not issue any comment.
     Last year’s Sixth Circuit opinion had found that 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.
     “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,” Judge John Rogers wrote for a three-person panel. “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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