Supreme Court Victory for Five-Year-Old's Right to Bring Service Dog to School
In a sweeping decision that should tear down barriers to justice for students with disabilities across the country, the ACLU of Michigan won a unanimous victory in the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of Ehlena Fry, a young girl with cerebral palsy who was barred from bringing her service dog to school.
Because of her disability, Ehlena needs assistance with many of her daily tasks. Thanks in part to the contributions of parents at Ehlena’s elementary school, Ehlena’s family raised $13,000 to acquire a trained, hypoallergenic service dog named Wonder. Wonder performed several tasks for Ehlena, assisted her with balance and mobility, and facilitated her independence. Nonetheless, her school district refused to allow Wonder in the school.
The ACLU of Michigan initially negotiated an agreement with the district to allow Ehlena to bring Wonder to school on a trial period for a couple of months; however, the district required Wonder to sit in the back of the classroom away from Ehlena and was not allowed to accompany Ehlena to recess, lunch, library time, and other activities.
The ACLU then filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which ruled that the school district violated Ehlena’s rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Ehlena’s family ultimately made the difficult decision to transfer to a new school where Wonder would be welcome.
In 2012 the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit against her former school district. Judge Lawrence Zatkoff dismissed the case, reasoning that the Frys could not bring a lawsuit because they did not first exhaust administrative remedies, and in 2015 the Sixth Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court agreed to hear our appeal, and in February 2017 the Supreme Court reversed, ruling 8-0 in favor of Ehlena. The case has been remanded to the trial court for further proceedings.
In August 2018, Judge Sean Cox denied both parties’ motions for summary judgment and referred the case to mediation.
(Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools; Cooperating Attorney Samuel Bagenstos of U-M Law School; ACLU of Michigan Legal Director Michael J. Steinberg; National ACLU Attorneys Susan Mizner and Claudia Center; Cooperating Attorneys Peter Kellett, James Hermon, Jill Wheaton and Brandon Blazo of Dykema, and Gayle Rosen and Denise Heberle.)