Flint students to be assessed for lead impact

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Attorneys for Flint’s schoolchildren reached a historic agreement with state, county and Flint education officials to create a program providing universal screenings for learning disabilities to all of the city’s children affected by lead-contaminated water.

A proposed settlement agreement between the Michigan Department of Education, Flint Community Schools and the Genesee Intermediate School District was filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Detroit. It calls for the state of Michigan to pay $4.1 million to create a program that would:

■Identify all Flint schoolchildren — from birth through age 25 — and place them on the existing Flint Health Registry for universal health screenings. Michigan special education services extend to that age group.

■Create a Neurodevelopmental Center in Flint that will be part of Hurley Hospital and staffed by the Genesee Health System, the county’s mental health provider. There, each child will undergo screening for potential educational disabilities. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha will run the center, to be operational in September.

■Require that a record of assessments results be sent to the district to be used in the process of evaluating students for special education services.

■Require the state, county and school district to provide staff to maximize participation in the registry and program.

■Train teachers and administrators on the program and how to recognize children potentially harmed by lead who may need referrals for treatment.

The agreement stems from a federal civil rights lawsuit the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan brought against Flint schools, state education department and the county ISD in 2016.

The lawsuit challenged systemic deficiencies in Flint’s special education program, including failures to find and serve children with special needs and to address the impact of the water crisis, which potentially put thousands of children at risk of developing a disability or worsening an existing disability, said Greg Little, chief trial counsel at Education Law Center, which sued on behalf of the children.

“The children and families of Flint have lived with exposure to lead in their water and with schools unequipped to help students whose learning may be affected by this dangerous neurotoxin,” Little said. “The agreement is unprecedented. It’s a terrific partnership between the families of Flint and the school district and the public health community. All three are working together to find the kids to get diagnosed.”

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

Families of Flint children exposed to elevated lead levels in the drinking water can enroll their children in the registry, complete a screening and have their children referred for further assessment by the center, attorneys said.

Parents of all children are encouraged to register to be a part of the program, even if a parent does not suspect a learning or behavioral problem, ACLU education attorney Kristin Totten said.

The battery of available assessments at the center will include neuropsychological testing, which is important for evaluating the effects of lead on cognitive development, memory and learning, Totten said.

“When you have a public health crisis, you really need to make sure all kids have the opportunity for a universal screening to see where they are,” Totten said.

“Today’s settlement is a critical first step in creating a system to identify the needs of the children of Flint,” Totten said.

Funding needs approvals

Totten said the $4 million state funding will need legislative approval. Services provided to children as the result of the assessments will be Medicaid reimbursable, she said.

The agreement must be approved by U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Tarnow, who is expected to hold a hearing on the proposal on Thursday.

It is a partial settlement of the lawsuit. The attorneys for the Flint parents and children will continue to pursue additional claims, including changes to special education services and student discipline procedures.

Between 25,500 and 28,000 children younger than 18 are living in Flint, attorneys said. About 4,500 children attend Flint Community Schools in grades K-12. Of those, about 900 or 19.8 percent have been identified as special education students. Statewide, 13 percent of students have been identified as special education across Michigan schools.

“We are pleased to reach an agreement on this important step forward in ensuring our students have the resources they need to minimize the effects of lead on their health, and we are grateful to be able to call on the expertise and partnership of Dr. Mona and the Genesee Health System in this matter,” said Diana Wright, Flint Community Schools Board president. “This agreement supports our primary focus—the health and well-being of each of our students.”

Flint families have endured a “rolling nightmare” because of politicians and administrators who would prefer to strip underprivileged communities of resources than to invest in them, said David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers Michigan.

“Tens of thousands of kids have suffered permanent harm because of their illegal actions. Today, the children of Flint have won a measure of justice through an unprecedented settlement that mandates the services and support that both the law and basic decency demands,” Hecker said in a statement.

Hanna-Attisha, the Michigan State University researcher and Hurley Children’s Hospital physician who discovered increased lead levels in the young patients she was treating when the lead crisis began in 2014, said she was approached by the legal teams on both sides of the lawsuit to find a solution that would decrease the number of repeat assessments on children.

Hanna-Attisha started the registry last fall for the general population in Flint with a $3.2 million grant from the federal government. Under the settlement, the registry will be expanded and it will generate a record of assessments that can be shared with the school community and physical and mental health practitioners.

Modeled after the World Trade Center Health Registry, the Flint registry has more than 900 residents on it so far. Hanna-Attisha said the registry will be a powerful tool to understand, measure and improve the lives of children exposed to the contaminated water. The children will be reassessed in two years to see what progress has been made.

“It’s leveraging what we already have in the community to get kids screened and assessed. The lawsuit was asking for a process for children. Rather than reinvent the wheel, we are working to get all school-children through the registry to get screened,” she said.

The amount of lead in the blood of Flint’s children dropped to a historic low in 2016 after action was taken in response to the city’s water crisis, according to a University of Michigan study published last month in the Journal of Pediatrics.

School resources needed

Whether the schools will have the capacity, staff and knowledge to help schoolchildren once they are assessed remains to be seen.

Michigan education officials confirmed the partial settlement and said the $4.1 million will come in grants or funds to the Flint Registry and the center for planning and initial implementation.

The Michigan Protection and Advocacy Service agency, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of the mentally ill, physically disabled and developmentally disabled students, sued the Flint school district in federal court in 2015 after two years of asking for student records and either getting no response or limited information from the district.

Flint parent Kelsey Behner said she hopes the settlement will lead to actual services for her 7-year-old daughter, Alexandra, who has Prader-Willi syndrome, a complex genetic condition.

People with Prader-Willi syndrome typically have mild to moderate intellectual impairment and learning disabilities. Behavioral problems are common, including temper outbursts, stubbornness and compulsive behavior.

Behner does not believe Flint’s water caused her daughter’s condition but exposure to lead exacerbates her symptoms. She said Flint school officials have not been responsive to her daughter’s special needs.

Behner pulled her daughter from Flint’s public schools in January. Alexandra is at home where she is enrolled in a virtual school, has no contact with other children and is not getting any of the special education services, Behner says, she is entitled to under the law.

Last week, Behner enrolled Alexandra and son Kash on the registry. She said she hopes the settlement agreement will force the district to provide help to all children in Flint who need it.

“I think it will more force them to do these things. She is identified. They know what they have to provide her and can’t say no. They have to provide these services. It will be a bigger repercussion if they don’t,” she said.


The Flint Health Registry

Parents and caregivers can enroll children ages 0-25 on the registry to begin the process of screening and evaluating physical and mental health needs in the wake of the lead-contamination water crisis.

Visit https://www.flintregistry.org