School Must Allow Service Dog to Accompany Kindergartner with Cerebral Palsy, ACLU Tells District

January 21, 2010

NAPOLEON, Mich. – The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan urged the Napoleon Community Schools today to respect the rights of a 5-year-old student with cerebral palsy who was barred from bringing her doctor-prescribed service dog to school. In its letter, the ACLU warned that the district’s actions violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“To force a 5-year-old girl with cerebral palsy 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 20 years, the Americans with Disabilities Act has ensured that individuals with disabilities are guaranteed the same rights and access as everyone else, a value that seems to be lost on the Napoleon school district.”

Ehlena Fry is a bright kindergartner at Ezra Eby Elementary School in Napoleon. Because of her spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy, a severe form of cerebral palsy that affects her legs, arms and body, Ehlena needs assistance with many of her daily tasks. In October 2009, Ehlena found the answer to her independence in Wonder, a specially trained, certified mobility assistance dog, who can help Ehlena retrieve items she drops, help her balance, open and close doors, and turn on lights. The Frys trained Wonder through donations from a fundraiser organized by the PTO and community members at her school.

According to the ACLU’s letter, prior to registering Ehlena for school, the Frys advised the school of their decision to purchase a service dog. At no point did the school district suggest that Wonder would not be allowed. Nonetheless, earlier this month, the School District rejected the Frys’ request to bring Wonder to school in a specially convened Individualized Education Plan meeting.

“The district denying Ehlena the right to have her service dog affects our whole family and the community that helped us raise the money for Wonder,” said Stacy Fry, Ehlena’s mother. “In the short time that we have had Wonder we have seen Ehlena grow more self-reliant. The smile on her face when she is able to do things on her own without my help is priceless and the more she is able to work with Wonder and command him, the more confident and independent she becomes. Separating them consistently for several hours a day could prove disastrous for Wonder’s training and bonding.”

In its 4-page letter, the ACLU explained that the Americans with Disabilities Act provides that public institutions, such as schools, must make reasonable modifications to their policies and practices to avoid discrimination on the basis of disability including allowing the use of a service animals on school property.

In addition, the ACLU contends that the school cannot demonstrate the service dog’s presence will fundamentally interfere with school activities. Since October, Wonder has been accompanying Ehlena to Sunday school, Girls Scout Daisy meetings, and other school and community functions without complaint and without distracting other participants. Wonder is hypo-allergenic and has been trained to get out of the way when he is not working.

The ACLU’s letter was signed by Steinberg and ACLU Cooperating Attorney Gayle Rosen.

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