Lead screenings offer hope for Flint
A major milestone has been achieved in the struggle to vindicate the rights of Flint students. In response to a class-action lawsuit filed by Flint children and their families, a federal court in Detroit approved a settlement agreement making universal screening, and in-depth evaluations when necessary, available to every Flint child exposed to lead in the water supply.
The Flint children in this case are represented by the ACLU of Michigan, Education Law Center and global law firm White & Case LLP.
The facts about the Flint water crisis are now well known. In what many describe as an “American catastrophe,” the state-appointed fiscal manager in 2014 switched the city’s water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River in a reckless attempt to save money. The water corroded the city’s aging pipes, causing them to leach lead into the system. The lead impacted the water in every home, business and school.
Much of the focus since the lead crisis came to light has been on providing Flint residents with bottled water and replacing the city’s contaminated pipes. But too little attention was paid to another major consequence of the crisis: the plight of Flint’s children and the potential long-term effects on their learning and success in school.
Children are especially vulnerable to the neurotoxic effects of lead. Lead exposure can negatively influence a child’s development, cognitive functioning, and behavior. Its impact on learning can be life-long and profound.
In Flint, community-wide exposure to elevated levels of lead over an extended period put the entire school-aged population at risk of developing a disability that affects their education. Under federal law, these children are entitled to special education programs and services.
But officials at every level failed to address the educational aftermath of the lead exposure. This dereliction of duty was compounded by an already broken special education program in Flint’s schools.
Under the settlement, the screening and evaluation program will be directed by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the courageous pediatrician who first blew the whistle on this catastrophe. The program will leverage the Flint Registry, a population-wide screening platform in which parents can enroll their children. Those in need of more in-depth evaluations will be referred to specialists affiliated with the local medical center. Neuropsychological evaluations will also be made available. These evaluations are crucial to pinpointing brain injury and detecting disabilities associated with lead exposure.
The settlement includes a commitment by the state and schools to make every effort to encourage families to participate in the program, and to train teachers and staff to help identify students in need of evaluations. Another key component requires the results of the expert evaluations be used by the schools in determining students’ special education needs.
But more remains to be done. The next phase of the lawsuit will tackle the urgent need to make certain that every student identified as having a disability impeding their education receives the individualized interventions and supports essential to make progress. To identify these students but not address their needs would be the ultimate injustice.
The Flint community, especially its vulnerable children, has endured a tragedy unlike any other in our nation’s history, at the hands of its own government. The settlement begins to hold to account those who caused this crisis. There is a long way to go, but at least Flint children now have a ray of hope.
David Sciarra and Kary Moss are executive directors of Education Law Center and the ALCU of Michigan, respectively.