The U.S. Supreme Court is being asked to take an appeal from an 11-year-old Michigan girl with cerebral palsy who switched schools after her service dog wasn't welcomed in a district in Jackson County.
It's a long shot; the Supreme Court rejects thousands of cases each year. But the American Civil Liberties Union believes it's ripe for review because federal appeals courts have given different interpretations to laws protecting the rights of children with disabilities.
"To force a child to choose to between her independence and her education is not only illegal — it is heartless," said Michael Steinberg, legal director at the ACLU in Michigan.
In 2009, with support from families in the Napoleon area, Ehlena Fry's family obtained a service dog to help her open doors, retrieve items and use the bathroom. She was 5 at the time and suffered from mobility problems due to cerebral palsy, which affects the brain.
But the Napoleon district that fall refused to allow Wonder to accompany Ehlena at school, 75 miles southwest of Detroit. Officials relented somewhat by spring 2010, but many restrictions were placed on Wonder in the classroom. Ehlena was subsequently home-schooled.
The U.S. Education Department in 2012 said the girl's rights had been violated. The school district agreed to let Ehlena return with Wonder, but her parents, fearing difficulties, instead sent her to the Manchester district, which had no problem with the dog.
The Frys sued Napoleon, saying the district violated federal disabilities laws when it had refused to accommodate Wonder over a 2 ½-year period. The case was dismissed on very technical grounds: A judge said the Frys first had to exhaust a series of administrative hearings. An appeals court agreed, 2-1.
That's the issue at the Supreme Court. The ACLU wants the justices to declare that a quick, clear route to a courthouse is available. The petition was filed Oct. 15.
"It's important to set a precedent so other children's lives are not disrupted while school officials drag their feet and refuse to provide them their right to a service dog or other accommodation," Ehlena's mother, Stacy Fry, said Friday.
But an attorney for the Napoleon district, Tim Mullins, said the hearing process works well because families and schools can negotiate an education plan.
"I doubt very much the Supreme Court is going to say, 'Yeah, let's pick this up,'" Mullins said.
Ehlena's independence has improved and she now attends school without Wonder.