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In A.R. v. School Administrative Unit #23, the U.S. District Court of New Hampshire ruled that the school district will not have to defend allegations that the district discriminated against an 8-year-old boy with multiple disabilities by refusing to hire, train, and pay for a handler for the child’s service animal since the Parents failed to exhaust their administrative remedies under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”).

Plaintiff, A.R., who is diagnosed with developmental delays, hypotonia, hearing loss, dysgraphia, epilepsy, and cortical blindness, suffers from frequent seizures that impact his mobility and communication abilities. Although A.R. receives significant educational services and supports from the District, he also has a service dog named Carina who alerts for seizures by licking A.R.’s face. The District allowed Carina to accompany A.R. at school; however, the District required that A.R.’s parents provide and pay for a handler to supervise Carina during the day since A.R.’s cognitive, sensory, and physical deficits limit his ability to manage and supervise Carina. Parents disagreed with the District, contending that by refusing to provide a service dog handler for A.R., the District failed to reasonably accommodate A.R.’s disability.

Specifically, the Plaintiff argued that the relief sought – the provision of a service dog handler by the District – is not available to him under the IDEA since the relief is not necessary to obtaining an appropriate education. Rather, the Plaintiff argued that the requested accommodation relates only to his medical needs and not his educational needs. Although the District agreed that the Plaintiff would not be able to obtain the requested relief under the IDEA, it argued that the gravamen of the Plaintiff’s complaint – whether the District must provide support services to allow Carina to accompany A.R. in school – fell within the reach of the IDEA; thus, the Plaintiff is required to exhaust his IDEA administrative remedies before bringing suit.

The District Court, applying the standards in Fry v. Napolean, which stated that exhaustion is not necessary when the gravamen of a suit is something other than the denial of the IDEA’s core guarantee of a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”), concluded that the Plaintiff’s claims fell within the reach of IDEA since he was seeking relief for a denial of FAPE. Since the Plaintiff’s complaint focused on the District’s obligation to provide the support services required for Carina to attend school with him (rather than merely the District permitting Carina’s presence in the school building), the Court ruled that the Plaintiff’s Section 504 and Title II claims were actually seeking relief for the denial of FAPE, and, as such, the Plaintiff was required to exhaust his administrative remedies before suing the District for disability discrimination. Therefore, the District Court dismissed the Plaintiff’s complaint for failure to first exhaust available administrative remedies under IDEA. Based on this court’s rulings, school districts should be aware that not all claims involving service animals will always fall outside the scope of IDEA’s exhaustion requirement.