RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And the U.S. Supreme Court today takes up the case of a girl, her service dog and a school that barred the dog from its premises. The legal issue in the case is pretty dry, but the facts are not, as NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Ehlena Fry was born with cerebral palsy, a condition that significantly limited her motor skills but not her cognitive skills. So when she was 5, her pediatrician recommended her parents get a service dog to help her be more independent. Family and friends threw fundraisers to scrape together the $13,000 needed for the right dog.
And in 2009, Ehlena and her parents went to Ohio to train for two weeks with their new Goldendoodle, a cuddly, big, white pup named Wonder. The Frys had talked to Ehlena's school about the dog, but when she brought Wonder to school with her, she was told the service dog was not allowed.
School officials have refused to talk about the case, but their legal position is that, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the district was already paying for an aide to help Ehlena physically in school and that the dog was unnecessary. Ehlena's parents wanted the dog to be with her so that she could perform more functions by herself, grow stronger and more independent.
Wonder was trained to hit handicap buttons for her to open and close doors, to pick up items she dropped, and perhaps most important, to help her make transfers from a chair to a walker or from a walker to a toilet seat.
STACY FRY: One of our whole goals in getting Wonder for her was that, eventually, the more she was able to use Wonder and navigate her environment, that she would need the aide less and less.
TOTENBERG: That's Stacy Fry, mother of five, including Ehlena. Early in their dispute, after mediation, the school agreed to a 30-day trial, but Stacey says the dog was not permitted to sit with Ehlena in class or go with her to the lunch room.
FRY: During the trial period, there was so much animosity.
TOTENBERG: Indeed, she says, that Ehlena and Wonder were required to demonstrate the toilet transfer with adults from the school watching, an experience that Stacy says was devastating and traumatic for her daughter. After the 30-day trial, the school returned to its no-dog policy. Although Wonder is a hypoallergenic breed, the school said, among other things, that two children and one teacher were allergic to dogs and that one child had a dog phobia because he'd previously been attacked by a dog.
So the Frys homeschooled Ehlena and then transferred her to another school district, where she and Wonder were welcomed with open arms. Wonder went to class with Ehlena and to lunch. He was in the staff section of the yearbook. He had his own ID card. He was in the class picture. And, says Stacy Fry, the relationship between dog and kid was integrated into the school seamlessly.
FRY: It was amazing, and they were so accepting, and it was such a teaching tool for the other kids.
TOTENBERG: The Frys eventually sued the old school district under the Americans With Disabilities Act and other federal laws. They sought unspecified money damages for the emotional distress they say their daughter suffered before the transfer to a new school district. Ehlena's mother says that the suit is not about money but to forge a path for other children with service dogs.
FRY: So that they don't have to have what happened to my daughter happen to their child. That is success for us.
TOTENBERG: Represented by the ACLU, the Frys want the Supreme Court to declare that when disabled children are prevented from having qualified service animals at school, they and their parents can go directly to federal court. But the school district, backed by the National School Boards Association, argues that to allow such suits could cost school districts millions of dollars.
They note that 6 million disabled children are covered by the law that guarantees individualized special-ed for disabled children, and that law requires that parents exhaust administrative appeals before going to court. So far, the Frys have lost in the lower courts, as have parents in most parts of the country.
But today, their case is before the Supreme Court. Ehlena will be there with Wonder. The Goldendoodle, after seven years of hard mobility work, has retired to a pet's life. Ehlena, now 12, is in middle school.
FRY: He helped her bridge that gap. Working with him helped her learn how to not need him as much.
TOTENBERG: A decision in their case is expected by summer. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.