Lawsuit filed for kids in Flint water crisis

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Flint — As part of fallout from the city’s lead-tainted water crisis, the ACLU of Michigan and the Education Law Center filed a federal civil rights lawsuit on Tuesday on behalf of tens of thousands of Flint schoolchildren alleging ongoing violations of disability laws by the state and local school district.

Kary Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan, announced the lawsuit inside a Flint church, saying the additional demands the lead crisis places on the education system, specifically to identify and serve affected children, requires state and local authorities to take immediate steps to fulfill their legal obligations.

The lawsuit alleges the Michigan Department of Education, Flint Community Schools and the Genesee Intermediate School district have failed to provide health and education screening to identify students who need special education services as well as provide necessary accommodations for students to achieve a meaningful education.

Sixteen percent of the more than 5,400 children enrolled in Flint Community Schools are eligible for special education services, ACLU officials said.

“All children can learn,” Moss said. “But the rights of schoolchildren and their families are being violated every day in Flint. This lawsuit exposes what has gone wrong, including a dysfunctional funding structure, and demands clear and urgent remedies to make it right.”

The lawsuit seeks class-action status, injunctive relief and immediate remedies on behalf of thousands of Flint families, Moss said. It does not seek monetary damages.

The suit alleges that beginning in April 2014, when state officials authorized use of corrosive water from the Flint River for the city’s water supply, nearly 30,000 Flint schoolchildren, from birth to age 19, were exposed to high levels of lead both at home and in school.

Lead and copper exposure can lead to health problems ranging from stomach pain to brain damage, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Lead levels in public school buildings operated by the Flint Community Schools, measured from October 2015 to January 2016, ranged from 61 parts per billion to over 2,800 parts per billion, Moss said.

While no amount of lead exposure is considered safe, federal law considers 15 parts per billion a level that warrants action.

“The legal action also shows that FCS, GISD and the State of Michigan are failing to provide a safe learning environment, allocate sufficient resources, ensure the availability of necessary personnel or adequately prepare for a likely increase in special education cases as a result of widespread exposure to lead,” Moss said.

Nakiya Wakes, mother of a plaintiff in the lawsuit, a 7-year old boy who has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, said there is no plan and no program to educate her child.

“All they do is send him home, with no services and no support,” Wakes said.

During the 2015-16 school year, while attending a charter school in Flint, Wakes’ son was suspended from school more than 50 times.

“I know my son can learn,” Wakes said. “But he can’t learn when he’s not in school, with no resources for him to make up the school work he’s missed.”

ACLU officials said during the 2014-15 school year, the suspension/expulsion rate for special education students in Flint Community Schools was 13.6 percent, more than five times higher than the rate for special education students in all Michigan school districts, which was 2.5 percent.

The lawsuit alleges ongoing violations of three federal laws: the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

“The extensive lead poisoning in Flint has combined with the lack of essential special education resources in the Flint schools to create a tragic crisis," said Gregory Little, a partner at White & Case and a board member of the Education Law Center. “By insisting on a positive learning environment for all students, this lawsuit will help all children and families in Flint.

Remedies requested in the lawsuit include:

■ Steps to identify the academic and behavioral needs of all Flint students in the school district.

■Implementation of positive behavioral interventions, in every school, with training and support to all personnel interacting with students.

■ Prevention of unnecessary suspensions and expulsions.

■ Requiring all Flint schools to provide special education services and accommodations for children with disabilities.

■ Oversight and monitoring of corrective measures needed to meet the educational needs of all students.

■ Convening of a panel of experts to evaluate current special education services in Flint.

■ Appointment of a special monitor to oversee implementation of the remedies.

Flint Community Schools Superintendent Bilal Tawwab said as with all legal matters he was unable to provide specific comment on pending litigation.

“The health and well-being of Flint Community Schools students remains a top priority. A number of additional wrap around services, support programs and initiatives have been implemented to support students and their families. The district is aware of the lawsuit and is reviewing the details as appropriate,” Tawwab said.

The Michigan Department of Education and the Governor’s Office declined to comment Tuesday.

“The Genesee Intermediate School District is reviewing this lawsuit, and as a general practice, will not comment on pending litigation. The GISD has been, and remains, deeply committed to the needs of all students and families in Flint and Genesee County,” said Steven Tunnicliff, associate superintendent with the school district.

Jessica Levin, staff attorney at the Education Law Center said: “The government’s own actions in exposing the community to elevated lead levels has put every child at risk. Now more than ever, families have the right to expect that the public education system will address their children’s special education needs.”

More than 450 civil lawsuits have been filed related to the Flint water crisis. State prosecutors have also filed criminal charges against eight current and former state employees and a city worker.

Flint , under the control of an emergency financial manager appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder, began drawing its water from the Flint River in April 2014. Originally conceived as a cost-saving move, the switch to river water backfired when state and local officials failed to add chemicals to prevent line corrosion and lead contamination.

Residents immediately began complaining of taste and smell issues with the water. Roughly a year ago, researchers began to uncover high levels of lead in the water as well as in the blood work of local children.

In October 2015, Flint returned to its historic water provider, now known as the Great Lakes Water Authority, in the hopes of getting potable tap water to its residents. The water quality has improved, but progress has been slow and residents continue to use filtered or bottled water.