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ACLU wants Flint kids screened for impact of lead

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan want a federal judge to order state and Flint education officials to screen and evaluate all Flint schoolchildren for health and education disabilities stemming from the lead water crisis.

The ACLU of Michigan filed a federal civil rights lawsuit on behalf of a group of Flint schoolchildren last October, alleging ongoing violations of disability laws by the Michigan Department of Education and Flint Community Schools.

The group said 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.

On Monday, ACLU attorneys filed a motion asking U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Tarnow to issue a preliminary injunction ordering education officials to evaluate all children in Flint for possible disabilities in ways recommended by experts through a screening and neuropsychological evaluation process.

In the motion, attorneys for the ACLU say lead’s presence in the blood is transient, and the window for detection through blood lead level testing is short-lived.

“The use of blood testing as a barometer of harm at this juncture is thus foreclosed. While lead dissipates in the blood, its effects throughout the body, and especially on cognitive and behavioral functions, are long-lasting. Those effects are detectable through sophisticated screening and testing that is uniquely calibrated to capture lead’s impact on brain functions,” the motion says.

“Such tailored testing is essential because of lead’s distinctive properties. Lead lacks a signature injury, meaning that it impacts each individual differently, and can have a lag effect, meaning that its impact may manifest long after it enters the body.

“In a population that has been subjected to community-wide lead poisoning — i.e., Flint children — it is impossible to predict which children will be affected, how they will be affected, and when they will be affected. A system of screening and evaluations is therefore necessary to identify those children and determine their needs.”

Asked to comment on the motion, Flint Community Schools Superintendent Bilal Tawwab said: “The well-being of Flint Community Schools students is our No. 1 priority. We are not at liberty to address questions on the matter at this time.”

The Michigan Department of Education and the Michigan Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on Wednesday.

Federal law requires schools to identify and evaluate all children with suspected disabilities, ACLU spokewoman Rana Elmir said.

“In most school districts, this means that only when a specific child is suspected of having a disability will the school district provide an evaluation to expose that disability and begin a process to develop Individualized Education Programs for the child,” Elmir said. “Since all children attending Flint schools were exposed to the lead at toxic levels, they are all at risk of struggling with the impact of the neurotoxin inflicted upon them.

“Without an effective screening and evaluation system in place, it is impossible to predict which children will be affected, how they will be affected, and when they will be affected — and to provide them with the services they need to learn and to thrive.”

In September, Tarnow denied the state’s request to dismiss the lawsuit.

The case is before Tarnow on Dec. 4.

The lawsuit 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.

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.

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