Student Denied Service Dog in Michigan Public School

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Nov 3, 2015

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School HallwayThe Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requires most businesses that are open to the public, including stores and restaurants, to take reasonable steps to accommodate disabled patrons. The ADA imposes a similar requirement on state and local governments.

Regulations that the Justice Department issued to implement the ADA require businesses to permit service dogs to accompany disabled customers in all places within the business where members of the public are allowed to go. A “service dog” is defined as a dog that has been trained to perform tasks for people with disabilities.

A “seeing-eye dog” that guides the visually impaired is the most well-known example of a service dog, but many dogs are trained to help the disabled in other ways. For example, a dog might be trained to open doors or cupboards for an owner who is confined to a wheelchair, to remind an owner with a memory impairment to take medications, or to calm an owner who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

In publications that explain the obligation to accommodate service dogs, the Justice Department makes specific reference to schools. In fact, the Justice Department notes that a K-12 school might be required “to provide some assistance to enable a particular student to handle his or her service animal.”

Michigan School Refuses to Allow Service Dog

Despite the clear guidance provided by the Justice Department, schools do not always allow service dogs to accompany disabled students. In a case that was recently reported by news media, a public school in Michigan denied an 11-year-old girl with cerebral palsy the opportunity to bring her service dog to class.

Ehlena Fry’s dog (a goldendoodle named “Wonder”) helps her open doors, use the bathroom, and pick up objects that she drops. Initially, the Napoleon school district refused to allow Ehlena to bring Wonder to school. The district claimed that it was already providing a human aide for Ehlena, rendering the dog superfluous. However, service dogs require intensive training and need to perform their duties to retain their effectiveness. The district’s position therefore interfered with the training and with the bonding between Ehlena and her dog that is essential to the dog’s performance. The district’s refusal similarly interfered with the growing sense of confidence and independence that Wonder gives Ehlena.

The district eventually granted Ehlena a two month trial period during which she could bring Wonder to school. The district imposed a number of restrictions, however, that separated Ehlena from Wonder for part of the day and prevented Wonder from doing all of the tasks for which Wonder was trained. At the end of the trial period, the district informed the Frys that Wonder would not be allowed to accompany Ehlena to school during the following year.

After the Frys began homeschooling Ehlena, they filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education under the ADA and a related law known as the Rehabilitation Act. Two years later, the Office of Civil Rights concluded that the school violated the ADA. The school then agreed to comply with the law. By that time, however, the Frys had enrolled Ehlena in a different school district that willingly accommodated Ehlena’s right to bring Wonder to school.

Procedural Hoops in Civil Rights Laws

Most federal and state civil rights laws include a number of procedural hoops through which victims must jump before they can have their day in court. A common procedural requirement requires victims to file an administrative claim and to exhaust their administrative remedies before filing a lawsuit. Administrative claims take time to resolve and, since they are decided by Administrative Law Judges rather than juries, they typically provide remedies that victims regard as inadequate.

Title I of the ADA, which addresses employment discrimination against the disabled, contains an administrative exhaustion requirement. Title II, which addresses access to services, programs, and activities provided by state and local governments, does not require administrative exhaustion of discrimination claims.

Ehlena’s family sued the school district in federal court under Title II after the Office of Civil Rights confirmed that the district violated Ehlena’s rights under the ADA. The lawsuit was dismissed, however, because Ehlena did not exhaust administrative remedies that were made available by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). On appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed that decision by a 2-1 vote.

Although the exhaustion requirement was imposed by the IDEA rather than the ADA, the Sixth Circuit concluded that the requirement applied to Ehlena’s claim. Specifically, the court decided that Ehlena should have used the administrative process to seek a change in her Individualized Education Program (IEP), a plan that federal law requires schools to create to address the special needs of each disabled child who receives a public education. Because Ehlena did not seek that administrative remedy before filing suit, the court held that her suit was properly dismissed.

While Ehlena’s family did not follow the formal procedure provided by the IDEA, they clearly asked the school district to allow Ehlena to bring her service dog to school and the district clearly refused. The dissent pointed out that seeking a change of Ehlena’s IEP would have been futile and questioned why a procedural barrier to civil rights protection should apply to ADA claims against schools when no similar barriers apply to ADA claims made against other public entitles.

Pointing out that the Sixth Circuit decision undermines the protections provided by the ADA, the ACLU has petitioned the Supreme Court to review Ehlena’s case. The Supreme Court takes only a handful of the cases it is asked to review, but making disabled children endure discrimination while school officials drag out administrative proceedings is shameful. The issue is one the Supreme Court should address.


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