Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools — Initial Takeaways

Having read the SCOTUS opinion from Wednesday's unanimous ruling in favor of Ehlena Fry, I found several points worth mentioning on what Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools means for children adopted internationally.

Ehlena was born with spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy, and she was adopted from India by a couple in rural Michigan. She endured multiple surgeries and physical therapy. Ehlena uses a walker for mobility, but she has difficulty opening doors, putting on coats, transferring from walker to toilet, retrieving dropped items, using light switches, etc. Her pediatrician recommended a service dog for these tasks, and with the help of community fundraisers, Wonder joined the Fry family.

How can you help your child find the path to healing when the school blocks the way?

Parts of the story that will resonate here with parents who have adopted a child with disabilities from another country — the journey of the adoption itself; the trauma of a child's chronic surgeries, pain, and physical therapy; the hope in finding your child bonding and attaching well (especially with a therapy dog); the frustration of finding school an unexpected battleground; the fear of retaliation & resentment from school officials; the weary choice to homeschool "in the meantime."

While Fry v. Napoleon doesn't expressly mention adoption or the challenges faced by children from backgrounds of trauma, abuse, and neglect, it's not difficult to imagine the strain on bonding and attachment posed by this entire ordeal, especially when school officials who allowed the therapy dog in on a "trial basis" forced him to stay in the back of the room while an aide sat with Ehlena. In essence, a child who faces greater obstacles to bonding and attachment because of her background of adoption and separation goes to school and faces forced separation from the helpmate her parents and doctor have encouraged her to bond with. Coupled with the medical issues, trauma on trauma. How can you help your child find the path to healing when the school blocks the way?

It might be easy to ask why the parents wouldn't be satisfied with the school's provision of an aide to meet those needs for Ehlena. But this is the crux of the issue for any family of a child with disabilities. When your child has a lifelong disability, you seek whatever support will give that child greater independence. It's vital, as we seek ways to give our children voice, that we're laying groundwork for them to appropriately exercise control and choices over their bodies and behavior. Will that be better facilitated by having an adult present in the restroom with your child, lifting her from walker to toilet each time, even as she ages, or by allowing your child to learn to use a service animal to steady herself and make that transfer? Which is more conducive to her ability to articulate her needs? Which protects her privacy better?

When your child has a lifelong disability, you seek whatever support will give that child greater independence. It’s vital, as we seek ways to give our children voice, that we’re laying groundwork for them to appropriately exercise control and choices over their bodies and behavior.

Much of the technical focus of the SCOTUS ruling has to do with differentiating between exhaustion of claims arising under Section 504 of the Rehabilitative Act and ADA, and those arising under IDEA. That's another discussion for another day. What this ruling does that is potentially very helpful is to clarify the functions of each of those vehicles in protecting people with disabilities.

This is important. In our own experience with Fu, he's been carried by teachers, made to wear a whistle around his neck in case of restroom falls, and kept inside during outdoor science labs because he'd be "too slow" walking in the mud. A friend was told her internationally adopted child would need to homeschool because the school lacked a full-time nurse to assist with catheterization. Another friend's child was excluded from school for 10 days when the school was unwilling to maintain her child's g-tube. These are all issues covered under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which was at stake in this case.

All these children were adopted internationally. All of them have disabilities. And all of them have a better chance to attend school on equal footing as their peers, thanks to Wednesday's Supreme Court ruling.

This video, produced by the ACLU of Michigan, is perfect.