Flint settlement includes $9 million to overhaul special education

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

A proposed $9 million special education fund is being established by the state for children of the Flint Water Crisis as part of a legal settlement in a class action lawsuit.

The fund, part of the larger $600 million settlement announced on Wednesday, will be used to strengthen the services and supports that students with disabilities receive in school, attorneys representing the children announced on Thursday.

The settlement, which still needs approval from a federal judge in Detroit, will provide immediate supports for Flint children impacted by lead, as well as longer term requirements to restructure and improve the delivery of special education services to all students with disabilities in public schools serving Flint and Genesee County, officials said.

Jeree Brown addresses a forum Tuesday in Flint on the challenges students face in the tainted-water crisis. A proposal is in the works to make the city’s high school grads eligible for free tuition for an associate’s degree.

In the 2016 lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Detroit, attorneys from the ACLU Fund of Michigan, the Education Law Center and White & Case law firm allege the state education department, the Genesee Intermediate School District and Flint schools failed to provide adequate financial and staffing resources and support to help Flint schoolchildren meet the challenges they were facing in getting special education services.

Gregory G. Little, chief trial counsel for Education Law Center, said the schools were not identifying the children of Flint who were harmed by lead and those schools were not providing the programs and services the children so desperately needed.

"This groundbreaking settlement addresses each of these concerns and will lay the foundation for an overhaul of the special education system. These systemic  improvements to special education will have a significant and positive impact on these children and the Flint community going forward," Little said.

The settlement is 2% of the larger $600 million settlement for the water crisis in Flint, Little said.

Flint's water was contaminated with lead when officials used corrosive river water that wasn't properly treated from April 2014 to October 2015. In children, lead exposure can result in serious effects on IQ, ability to pay attention and academic achievement. 

The proportion of special education students in Flint schools increased from 14.88% in the 2014-15 school year — as the lead-tainted water crisis began — to 20.3% in the 2018-19 school year, when there were 862 special education students in the district.

The district's special education population last school year was around 26-27%.

Little said about 18,000 school-age children were exposed to lead during Flint's water crisis. Those children and their current school placement, whether it be Flint public schools or other public schools in Genesee County, are being tracked by the county intermediate school district so they can be offered assistance.

The case plaintiff, the state, and the Flint and county school districts are deciding how the $9 million will be spent, Little said.

An announcement detailing the fund and how the money will be invested is expected by Oct. 15.

"We want to get at systemic needs and we really want an assessment as to what districts are in need of. That will helps us inform how we get the most bang for their buck," ACLU of Michigan education attorney Kristen Totten said. "We are looking for system change."

Jeree Brown, a Flint mother with two children in Flint public schools and a plaintiff, celebrated the announcement on Thursday.

“Lead-poisoned children in Flint must be provided with all of the supports they need to learn and flourish,” Brown said. “The settlement is designed to make sure they’re not left behind.”

All three defendants in the federal lawsuit have agreed to provide additional funding and services to settle the case.

The terms of the settlement, which is subject to approval by the court, include:

•The distribution of at least $9 million from the State of Michigan to establish the Flint Water Crisis Special Education Fund

•Supplemental assistance from the GISD to FCS and other districts impacted by the Flint Water Crisis, including $1 million for county-wide special education transportation and over $1 million in staff and services for FCS during the 2020-2021 school year.

• A comprehensive assessment of preschool programs intended to ensure the delivery of high-quality, developmentally appropriate universal pre-school for all three- and four-year-olds in Flint.

• Continued implementation of the “child find” claims reached earlier in the case, which established a $4 million Neurodevelopmental Center of Excellence that offers universal screening, and in-depth neuropsychological assessments when necessary, to all Flint children impacted by the water crisis.

Lindsay M. Heck, lead attorney from White & Case LLP, which worked on the case pro bono, said this is a landmark settlement.

"Lead is a potent neurotoxin that causes irreversible brain damage. There is no medical intervention that can completely counter the effects of lead exposure—education offers the only antidote," Heck said.

"This settlement establishes a model to identify children with disabilities, to create structural changes that will ensure that those disabilities are properly addressed, and to prevent school discipline from being used as a substitute for behavioral interventions."