A Girl and Her Guide Dog Push Forward for Special Education Rights

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The Supreme Court ruled yesterday to continue a lawsuit against a public school district that rejected a special-needs guide dog.

By Elena Gooray

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(Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

A young girl just won against the school that rejected her service dog — pushing forward debate about the scope of the primary federal law meant to protect students with disabilities.

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously yesterday that 13-year-old Ehlena Fry can move forward with a lawsuit against her public school district in Michigan that tried to swap Fry’s service dog, Wonder, with a human aide. The school claimed that the human substitute would satisfy all of Fry’s educational needs. An appeals court took its side in 2015, dismissing Fry’s lawsuit on the grounds that the family must go through an extensive process mandated by the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)—the central federal legislation on special education — to determine whether barring Wonder truly affected Fry’s schooling.

But simple discrimination — rather than quality of education — may be the real issue at hand, the Supreme Court argued yesterday in reversing the lower court’s decision. Whether or not Fry was getting an appropriate education, the ruling argued, rejecting Wonder may be viewed as a form of disability-based discrimination. That kind of discrimination can occur even when a student technically has access to a fair education, Justice Elena Kagan concluded in the court’s opinion. As Kagan wrote:

Consider, as suggested above, that the Frys could have filed essentially the same complaint if a public library or theater had refused admittance to Wonder…. Or similarly, consider that an adult visitor to the school could have leveled much the same charges if prevented from entering with his service dog.

In so ruling, the court has found that some disability accommodations for students can circumvent IDEA procedures, even when those accommodations would be given in schools.

The decision comes at a time of high concern over disability protections in schools. Newly appointed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos drew criticism during her confirmation hearings last month after expressing confusion over, and unfamiliarity with, IDEA. DeVos has since reassured lawmakers that she understands IDEA and is committed to serving students with special needs, taking that stance in a letter to a Republican member of the Senate’s education committee. But disability rights advocates are still waiting to see action from DeVos, the Washington Post reported.

As the Supreme Court ruling makes clear, DeVos’ department should also be prepared to field disability-based discriminations that may not fall strictly under IDEA. In the meantime, Fry, at least, has moved on to a guide-dog-friendly school — though in all the time the case has taken, Wonder has since retired.

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