Update: On Wednesday, February 22, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Ehlena Fry, the disabled Michigan girl whose school refused to let her bring her service dog Wonder to class. The decision, am 8–0 ruling by the justices, makes it easier for students with special needs to seek redress for discrimination in federal court. The justices sent the case back to a lower appeals court to determine whether Ehlena’s complaint involves the impermissible denial of a proper special education. Learn more about Ehlena and Wonder in the article below.
Devyn Pereira and Hannah, her service dog, move through their day as one. Clipped to Hannah’s harness, the nine-year-old is both safe and as independent as possible. If Devyn tries to roam, the 110-pound, white Bouvier des Flandres sits down, stopping the child with the weight of her body.
Before Hannah came into her life five years ago, the little girl had to be carried or transported by wheelchair to the school bus loop. Now, she walks beside Hannah. The dog is also trained to detect seizures and alert adults so medication can be administered.
Devyn was born with Angelman Syndrome, a rare neurological disorder that affects speech and mobility, and causes developmental delays, autism and seizures. The Gates Chili Central School District, located in a suburb of Rochester, N.Y., permits Hannah to accompany Devyn to school, as long as her mother pays for a dog handler. Heather Pereira’s position is that her daughter is Hannah’s handler, and she only needs minimal assistance from school staff (a one-on-one school aide and a nurse are also with Devyn daily).
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) agreed, and in September 2015, sued the school district for violating Devyn’s civil rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). School officials refused to comply. On August 7, U.S. District Court Judge Charles J. Siragusa dismissed the school district’s motion for a summary judgment (a method for promptly disposing of legal actions that are without merit). This means the case will go forward.
“People ask me all the time, why do you think the school is doing this? Why do you think that they are making this so difficult?” says Pereira. “When Gates disregarded what the DOJ said, it became clear this isn’t a matter of ignorance, it is blatant defiance … Devyn’s school is using her disability against her. Her level of delay does not erase her rights. It does not make her less worthy of the compassion and respect all parents want for their children.”
Most children are able to bring their service dogs to school without a hitch, according to Ron Hager, senior staff attorney with the Washington, D.C.- based National Disability Rights Network. But families who face prolonged resistance from school districts find themselves spending enormous amounts of time and, in some cases, money trying to convince school administrators to allow these service animals in their classrooms.
The number of legal disputes between families and school districts over this issue has increased in the last five years, says Hager. In the fall, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case involving Ehlena Fry, a 12-year-old Jackson, Mich., girl with cerebral palsy who was banned from bringing her Goldendoodle service dog, Wonder, to class.
“Our case is specifically about whether people bringing disability cases have to jump through a lot of administrative hoops first,” says Michael J. Steinberg, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, which brought the suit with the Frys. Steinberg says he is confident about the outcome of the Supreme Court case, noting that a child with a disability should not have to choose between her education and her independence. “Give Ehlena her day in court and we will prove that the district violated the ADA,” he says.
In some instances, school officials have prohibited a service dog on the basis that the district was already meeting all of the student’s educational needs. However, preventing children from bringing their service dogs to school disrupts the special bond between handler and animal, says Tiffany Denyer, founder of Wilderwood Service Dogs in Maryville, Tenn. “It doesn’t work unless you send the dogs to work.”
When Fairfax County School District in Virginia refused to allow Andrew Stevens, who has severe epilepsy and is developmentally delayed, to take his German Shepherd service dog, Alaya, to school in 2010, his family reached out to the national media, even appearing on The Today Show. When interviewed by the media, Kim Dockery, Fairfax County Public Schools assistant superintendent, said she was concerned about keeping Andrew and the other students safe. The district ultimately allowed Alaya to accompany Andrew. “I think they’re afraid of new things they don’t understand,” says Angelo Stevens, Andrew’s dad.
Heather Pereira began advocating for her daughter’s right to take her service dog to school six years ago. When she talks about the ongoing conflict with Gates Chili school officials, you can hear the weariness in her voice, but the determination is still there, too. In 2011, the district allowed Hannah to accompany the preschooler to school; then, that summer, Pereira was informed that in order for the service dog to continue to be permitted in school, she would have to pay for a dog handler. Pereira complied, but she also hired a disability rights attorney and ultimately filed a complaint with the DOJ’s civil rights division.
In September 2013, two investigators traveled to Rochester to interview Pereira, school administrators and classroom staff. Nearly two years later, the DOJ found that the district was in violation of ADA requirements and ordered it to reverse its policy and pay more than $25,000 in damages. The New York State Education Department also found in Pereira’s favor.
This battle could prove pricey for the upstate New York school district. From October 2013 to May 2015, Gates Chili incurred more than $34,000 in legal expenses related to the case, according to documents obtained by the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle newspaper through a Freedom of Information Act request.
A detailed report revealed how the DOJ reached its finding:
“Since D.P. began working with her service dog, she has learned to communicate with the dog through hand gestures and signals. Her service dog interrupts certain behaviors caused by her autism (such as meltdowns, wandering and repeated body movements). Her service dog also alerts adults to oncoming seizures so they can take precautions before the seizure occurs. In short, with the help of her service dog, D.P. is both safer and more independent at school.”
The federal agency also found that requiring staff members to unhook Devyn from the dog from time to time and to occasionally remind her to issue a command were “minimal and reasonable accommodations.”
Two weeks later, the school district challenged the ruling and filed an appeal.
“It’s extremely rare for a school district to fight the federal government. To actually litigate—I’ve never seen it,” says Ron Hager, who has been a disability rights attorney for decades. Gates Chili Superintendent of Schools Kimberle Ward declined a request for comment, saying that she could not speak on a pending matter.
The school district just doesn’t get it, says Kristin Small of the Empire Justice Center in Rochester, one of Pereira’s lawyers. “It does not get to choose how Devyn Pereira, as a person with a disability, travels through this world. That is Devyn’s choice alone, or her mother’s, as long as she is a minor,” she says. “Just as it would not be permitted to tell a person in a wheelchair, ‘I know you prefer to use the wheelchair, but … just try crutches instead,’ it is not appropriate to say to this child’s mother, ‘I know you would like her to bring the dog, but we think she can do fine at school without it.’ The fact that Devyn’s use of a service animal is an inconvenience to the school district is irrelevant. If the school can reasonably accommodate that choice, it must do so.”
Waiting for Justice
Hannah was trained at Tiffany Denyer’s Wilderwood Service Dogs, which specializes in providing service dogs for people with neurological diseases, including autism, psychiatric disorders, dementia, PTSD and brain injuries. According to Denyer, “About half the dogs are rescues; the rest come from breeders we have relationships with.” She looks for dogs who enjoy work, are calm and easily adapt to change.
In 11 years, she has placed about 200 service dogs. Each undergoes roughly 18 months of training; the first six months focus on general tasks; the rest is geared to meet the individual handler’s needs. The dogs learn about 50 commands and are taught to be low maintenance; Hannah goes the entire school day without food, water or having to relieve herself.
Hannah cost $16,000, but some trainers charge $25,000 or more per service dog. Many families, including the Pereiras, fundraise for months in order to purchase a dog. Denyer estimates that 10 to 20 percent of the families she works with have encountered problems getting schools to fully accept their service dogs.
Heather Pereira calls Hannah a “gentle giant.” “She has such a calm, graceful presence, even when Devyn gets ramped up about something,” she says. “Devyn never asks to be untethered from Hannah. That says a lot for their connection.”
This fall, Devyn will enter a fourthgrade special education class. Pereira says she is amazed at the growth she has seen in her daughter, attributing much of it to her connection with Hannah.
“Devyn is doing things with Hannah we never thought she’d be able to do. If Hannah is lying down, she’ll tug on the harness to make her get up. She taps the ground so that Hannah will lie down. Before, Hannah guided Devyn all the time; now, Devyn is the one guiding Hannah.”
As fall approaches, the Pereiras and the Frys wait for justice.
“We hope that the school district realizes they don’t have a strong case and negotiates a settlement,” Pereira says. “The pressure to make this better for Devyn and all who follow is real. Every parent knows they will not be around forever and so we work to create a world that not only accepts our child’s differences, but more importantly, embraces them.”
Ehlena and her dog Wonder win in the U.S. Supreme Court. From Reuters:
The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday sided with a disabled Michigan girl whose school refused to let her bring her service dog to class, making it easier for students like her to seek redress for discrimination in federal court.
The justices ruled 8-0 that Ehlena Fry, 13, and her parents may not be obligated to go through time-consuming administrative appeals with the local school board before suing for damages for the emotional distress she said she suffered by being denied the assistance of her dog, a goldendoodle named Wonder.