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Judge OKs plan to give Flint kids lead screening

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
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Detroit — A federal judge approved an unprecedented agreement to give universal screenings for learning disabilities for all Flint children affected by lead-contaminated water and create a neurodevelopmental center where deeper assessments can be done.

Jaylon Tyson, 9, of Flint, one of the plaintiffs in the case, stands with attorneys Kristin Totten, from left, Gregory Little and Lindsay Heck outside the federal courthouse in downtown Detroit on Thursday.

On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Tarnow said the agreement between the Michigan Department of Education, Flint Community Schools and the Genesee Intermediate School District is a “win-win” for everyone involved, but especially for the children of Flint.

“This is one of those times when I don’t have to watch out for the losing side. ... This case is truly a win-win situation for all sides,” Tarnow said in U.S. District Court in Detroit.

The settlement, which says the state of Michigan will pay $4.1 million to create a program that would identify all Flint schoolchildren — from birth through age 25 — and place them on the Flint Health Registry for universal health screenings, satisfies the needs of children in Flint, Tarnow said.

The money will go toward staffing and support for the Neurodevelopmental Center in Flint, which 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.

And while attorneys for the state and school districts took adversarial positions for their own clients, Tarnow said, “They realized all of you were representing the children of Flint.”

The agreement 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.

Attorneys for the state, Flint school district and the ISD each stood up in court and said they approved the settlement but still planned to challenge remaining claims in the case.

“This has been hard fought litigation on the issues. ... We do believe it is a fair and equitable settlement,” Assistant Attorney General Richard Kuhl said.

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.

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.

Attorney Greg Little, who represented the children of Flint, said the settlement is a victory for every child in the city.

“We are not aware of an agreement like this anywhere in the country,” Little said.

Asked what reassurances he received the state of Michigan will come up with the funding that will go for planning and implementation of the program, Little said he expects the money to be approved no later than July 15. According to the agreement, the money will come from the Michigan Department of Education, but it must be approved by the state Legislature.

“I expect them to the do the right thing. ... It is so obvious that this the right thing to be done,” Little said. “I would be shocked if they did not come forward. If they don’t, we have the court to fall back on. We will be back in court immediately if the money is not provided.”

Martin Ackley, a spokesman for the education department, said his office is in discussions with the State Budget Office “on the best ways to approach this ... whether it’s through the current budget process or through a supplemental.”

Flint mother Ariana Hawk came to court Thursday to see the agreement get approval. Hawk has five children ages 2-11. Some have suffered from anger and behavioral problems since the lead exposure.

“To have a broad program to identify problems with all children ... is really why I came. This is a victory for us moms. Our kids are going through something and we need the help and we need the resources,” she 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.

Services provided to children as the result of the assessments will be Medicaid reimbursable.

Flint resident Jaylon Tyson, age 9, sat in the courtroom during the hearing. He came to court in Detroit with his sister. Outside court Tyson said he gets mad “’cause the water is gross,” saying it smells and tastes bad.

Jaylon has ADHD, and he wasn’t receiving services he needed in school, his sister, Nashauna Scott, said. He was repeatedly suspended for his behavioral problems last school year at Flint Community Schools.

This year, the third-grader is being home schooled. Jaylon said he needs help doing math homework but is good at science and art.

“I want to be a doctor when I grow up,” he said.


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