Justices Refuse Case of Student Denied by Military High School

By Mark Walsh — December 14, 2009 1 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court today declined to hear the appeal of a New Mexico student who was denied admission to a state military high school because of her behaviorial problems and her need for counseling and medication.

Sarah Ellenberg sought admission the the New Mexico Military Institute in 2003. The college-preparatory school acknowledged in court papers that it denied Ellenberg because of her past drug use, her behaviorial problems, and the fact that she was in a residential treatment program at the time. It said she could re-apply after she had demonstrated she could succeed in a regular educational environment.

Ellenberg sued over the denial. She argued that because she was eligible for special education services under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, she automatically qualified as having a disability under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Thus, she argued, the school should not have based its admissions decision on behavior that stemmed from her disability, which is described in court papers as “oppositional defiance disorder.”

Both a federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, in Denver, ruled for the military institute. In a July 10 decision, a three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit court held that the three federal laws at issue have somewhat different definitions of disability.

“Ellenberg’s failure to offer evidence that her disability substantially impairs a major life activity is fatal to her prima facie case under Section 504 and the ADA,” the appeals court said.

The Supreme Court declined without comment to hear the student’s appeal in Ellenberg v. New Mexico Military Institute (Case No. 09-429).

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.