Cutting through red tape for special needs kids

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By Marie E. Matyjaszek

Almost every day that I am at work, I wish we had an office dog or cat to prowl around the premises.  Not because I require one to work, but because they simply make dealing with the day-to-day stress easier. Who wouldn’t smile when seeing a goofy mutt lumbering down the hallway, or popping in the office looking for treats?

For some, having a dog as a service animal is imperative from the minute they wake up until the time they go to sleep.  Service dogs have long been viewed as welcome in offices, malls and governmental buildings without most people giving it much thought.

However, for a young student in Napoleon, Mich., her fight to bring her service dog to school has gone all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Ehlena Fry, who was just 8 years old at the time the legal issues began in 2012, suffers from cerebral palsy, a condition that severely affects her motor skills and mobility.  She also has a now mostly retired Goldendoodle, named “Wonder,” who her parents wanted to accompany her to school as a trained service dog.

At first, officials from Napoleon Community Schools said bringing the dog was a no-go, but then allowed him to accompany her in the classroom on a trial basis.  However, while Wonder was permitted in the building, he could not go with Ehlena for recess, lunch, or activities out of the classroom, which essentially rendered him useless.

Not surprisingly, Ehlena’s parents brought suit against the school district, seeking remedial action and damages.

Ruling that the family had to jump through the hoops of an administrative hearing before filing suit, a U.S. District Court dismissed the case, a decision that was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. Fortunately for the Frys, the U.S. Supreme Court in June agreed to hear the case, and will determine if administrative hearings are a necessary first step before heading to court.

The plaintiffs have secured the legal backing of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which is handling the appeal. In addition, the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education has sided with the plaintiffs, saying that Ehlena’s rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act were infringed upon. For good measure, President Obama has voiced his displeasure with the court rulings thus far.

In my view, it seems clear that the forced use of administrative hearings can unnecessarily delay a student’s ability to have access to his or her service dog while in school, risking the safety and well-being of the child.

Not surprisingly, Ehlena now attends school in Washtenaw County.

Hopefully her story will shine a light on the rights of children with disabilities under federal anti-discrimination statutes and will push forward rights of access for all special needs students.

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The author is a family law attorney whose blog site is: http://legalbling.blogspot.com. She can be reached by e-mailing her at matyjasz@hotmail.com.
 

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