Back to school

It’s the beginning of September—families are pulling together the binders, backpacks and pencils their children will need to go back to school. At the same time, students with disabilities and their parents will be celebrating two recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings that will be incredibly helpful in advancing the rights of the disabled in the classroom.

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Ehlena Fry and her service doggie Wonder

The first case was decided by the Court last summer. Ehlena Fry was five years old and just starting kindergarten when she got her service dog Wonder.  Ehlena has cerebral palsy and her doctors suggested the service dog as a way to help her become more independent. Wonder is able to help open and close doors, pick up things and stabilize Ehlena so she could independently make transfers from chair to walker.

However, Ehlena’s school district refused the family’s request to use the dog in the school. When the parents sued, the district maintained it was an administrative issue—and not a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Justice Elena Kagan, writing the decision for a unanimous court in the case of Fry v. Napoleon (MI) Community Schools, ruled that parents of a child denied the use of her service dog may sue that school district under provisions of the A.D.A. This is a great victory for the rights of people with disabilities to have service doggies help them live independent lives!

The Second case involves the landmark Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  passed in 1975 and guarantees students with disabilities the right of a “free appropriate public education.”  Of course, it is often a struggle to make sure the lofty words and ambitions of legislation are actually being put into practice throughout a system as decentralized and complex as American public schools.

The case of Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District will go a long way to clarify just what an “appropriate” education means for students with disabilities.
Endrew F. is a student with autism and attention deficit disorder.  His parents, concerned that his annual individualized education plan didn’t seem to change from year to year, pulled him from public school and enrolled him in a private school.

The Court, in a unanimous decision, agreed with the parents that merely being enrolled in the public school and being given the minimum is not sufficient and IDEA demands more from school districts.  In his decision, Chief Justice Roberts wrote “The goals may differ, but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”


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