Often when special education practice or protocol change because of a precedent-setting legal case, the public scarcely pays attention. In mid-February, a case made its way to the Supreme Court and then through the news cycle, getting a handful of people talking along the way. For the most part, the ensuing conversation was about incidental factors rather than about the actual issue before the Court. I’m wondering just what the longterm effects of the Court’s decision will be.
To any readers unfamiliar with the case, Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools examined whether or not families must exhaust recourses available through IDEA before seeking damages for discrimination via other laws. The case also involved a young girl with cerebral palsy and her service dog, a photogenic Goldendoodle. Most people will remember the case being about the school denying a service (and an adorable, fluffy service) to this girl. It really wasn’t about that.
True, its genesis was the school’s denial of the girl’s use of the service dog on campus. With paraprofessionals in place to meet the girl’s needs, administrators saw the dog as unnecessary. The family eventually pulled their daughter and placed her in a school that would allow the dog. This wasn’t before the moment that generated a discrimination suit.
In an effort to determine whether or not the dog could assist the girl as the family claimed, staff had the girl demonstrate how the dog could help her in a bathroom. She didn’t have to use the bathroom in front of staff, but instead she had to show the dog’s capacity to assist her physically. Per the family and their attorney, the scenario was invasive and humiliating enough to warrant a discrimination suit seeking emotional damages.
District Court dismissed this. The reason? The family hadn’t followed due process through IDEA before seeking damages. Such emotional damage suits aren’t within IDEA’s scope, as it deals with issues of access. Regardless, the decision stood. The parents appealed.
The Supreme Court heard the case in the fall and issued their decision this winter. They sided with the family, stating the need to go through IDEA due process shouldn’t apply in situations that involve emotional damage claims and other similar forms of discrimination.
What will this mean for various stakeholders? Perspective matters here. My experience in special education suggests this could become a new area of disability law for attorneys to exploit. Parents of children with disabilities might have greater leverage from which to seek emotional damages in various instances of perceived discrimination. Potentially any situations in which schools allegedly single out children with disabilities could be claimed as spurring an emotional hardship. Limits would exist of course, as some students end up being singled out at times per the delivery of their IEPs. Still, parents might be more encouraged to pursue damages knowing fewer hurdles exist per this precedent. I could see this becoming expensive for schools.
The other perspective to take would be to see this as a victory for parents and for children with disabilities. Another protection against discrimination could emerge from Fry, thus holding schools accountable in instances of genuine wrongdoing. It may clear some of the confusion over how to redress such wrongdoings. Instead of looking at this as a new way for schools to lose, one could look at it as a way to keep schools in check, and thus improve services.
What do my readers think? Will this case be a precedent-setter? Will it lead to the increase in discrimination suits I predict? Do you see it as more of a loss for schools or as a victory for families? Share your thoughts in the comments.