WASHINGTON — A 12-year-old girl with cerebral palsy sat quietly inside the Supreme Court Monday as the justices clashed over whether her family can sue school officials for denying access to her service dog.
Wonder the Goldendoodle stayed outside.
But the two were happily reunited after an hour's debate — at which time Ehlena Fry pronounced the proceedings "cool" and offered a prediction: "I think we will win."
The Michigan case focuses on whether Ehlena's family can seek damages under the Americans with Disabilities Act without going through a lengthy administrative process under the separate Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. It was Ehlena's physical and emotional independence, not her education, that was affected by the Napoleon Community Schools' refusal to allow the girl to bring her dog into school during elementary school, the family argued.
Several justices, bordering on a majority, appeared sympathetic to the Frys' argument. Forcing them to negotiate with school officials over Ehlena's educational program seemed unfair, they said, when her education wasn't the family's concern. Rather, the Frys wanted the dog — not a human aide — to perform such tasks as helping Ehlena in the bathroom.
"All of the harms alleged are essentially compensatory emotional harms," Justice Sonia Sotomayor said -- the type that can be settled under the ADA, not the education law.
In the middle were Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Stephen Breyer, who expressed concern that a decision in the Frys' favor could prompt other families of children with disabilities to gain an advantage over school districts through a "two-track system."
If families can sue under the ADA law while negotiating their child's educational program, Roberts said, the families could gain unfair leverage over the process. But at the same time, he acknowledged, requiring Ehlena's family to go through the IDEA process when their concerns are not about education would be "a kind of charade."
The case is the first of two on the high court's dociet involving how schools handle children with disabilities. The justices also will try to decide what standard of education schools must provide to students with disabilities under the IDEA -- whether it must be "substantial" or just "de minimus."
The back-and-forth was all moot for Wonder, who has been retired as a service dog and appeared content to wait on the court's plaza along with several other students with disabilities and their service dogs, all products of the training program 4 Paws for Ability,
"Wonder was really the bridge" for Ehlena to gain independence from other human assistance, her mother, Stacy Fry, said outside court. By pressing the case, she said, "We would really like to make a difference for kids who use service dogs."