Families in Flint say there’s a special education crisis that’s about to get worse

The lawsuit claims Flint schools have been failing special education students for years.

Mari Copeny, 8, of Flint, Michigan at a Congressional hearing in March. CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Mari Copeny, 8, of Flint, Michigan at a Congressional hearing in March. CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Nakiya Wakes’s two children have long lived with learning challenges: her eldest daughter, 17 years old, has epilepsy, and her seven-year-old son has ADHD. But they still both loved going to school in Flint, Michigan.

That changed after their struggles became compounded, Wakes says, by the water contamination crisis that exposed all residents to lead poisoning. Wakes began noticing that her daughter was no longer able to comprehend her reading. Her son started having behavioral issues. The year before the water crisis, Wakes says he was suspended once; this last year, he was suspended over 50 times.

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Wakes started contacting the school to ask for an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, for her son to document and address his needs. But she says the school fought her until the end of the year. “I felt like they were trying to deny my son his education,” she said on a call with the media.

In the meantime, he kept being suspended, and now he doesn’t want to go to school at all. “He was the type that if the bus comes and he misses it, he’s crying because he loved school,” she said. “But now my son doesn’t like school anymore.”

“I feel like everyone has let us down,” she added. “We didn’t ask to be poisoned, and these kids need their education.”

Now residents like Wakes are taking aggressive steps to ensure their children get the educational services they need in the wake of the water crisis. Flint families, along with the ACLU of Michigan and attorneys from White & Case and the Education Law Center, announced a proposed class-action lawsuit on Tuesday that alleges the state and the Flint school system were already violating the law before the crisis by having inadequate services for children with special needs — violations that are all the worse now with so many more children potentially in need.

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“In the wake of the Flint lead crisis, Flint children face an unprecedented educational and civil rights disaster,” the complaint reads. “For the children of Flint, education is the antidote to the public health crisis they have endured.”

The lawsuit alleges that poor education began long before the water crisis, pointing to declining enrollment and graduation rates in Flint Community Schools and rising drop-out rates; staff and service reductions; and an “ongoing pattern and practice” of failing to provide special education services as required by students’ IEPs. Special education students in Flint are expelled or suspended at five times the state average, while there have been reports of physical violence from staff and children with disabilities being isolated and even restrained in basket holds.

“For years, Flint has systematically failed to adequately supply services for children with disabilities,” Gregory Little, a partner with White & Case, said on the media call. Now the lead poisoning has made “an absolutely terrible situation significantly worse.”

“The state has put every student at risk of a disability,” added Jessica Levin, staff attorney with the Education Law Center.

When Flint switched its water supply from the Detroit water system to the Flint River in April of 2014, officials failed to add corrosion control chemicals, which meant that lead began leeching from pipes into the city’s drinking water. It wasn’t until September of 2015 that a lead advisory was issued by the city, however, and states of emergency at various government levels weren’t issued until December 2015 and January 2016.

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While Flint switched back to the Detroit system in October 2015, the damage to the pipes was already done. Officials still say that the water can only be consumed if it’s been filtered. Meanwhile, residents drank lead poisoned water for over a year.

Researchers have tied the change in water sources to increases in children’s blood lead levels. Before the switch, 2.4 percent of Flint children had elevated blood lead levels; afterward, 4.9 percent did. The increase was even more dramatic in areas with high levels of lead in their water: 4 percent of children had elevated lead levels beforehand in those areas, compared to 10.6 afterward.

Flint’s children have therefore borne the brunt of the crisis, but it’s the most disadvantaged children who have been hit hardest. The same research found that children under five in the poorest of the city’s neighborhoods had the greatest increases in elevated blood lead levels. Some of the more affluent areas, meanwhile, actually saw lead levels decrease, likely because middle-class residents were able to take preventative measures when the water was switched.

Since the lead poisoning epidemic emerged, the state has instituted educational screenings for children ages zero to three and added additional school nurses, although they are only there temporarily.

The new lawsuit argues much more needs to be done. It calls for evaluations for children between the ages of three and 26 as required by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, not just zero to three as is currently being conducted. Children who have qualifying disabilities should then be referred to and provided with the right services in “the least restrictive environment,” it says. And it calls for procedural safeguards banning the use of disciplinary measures against behaviors that arise from having a disability, including getting rid of physical restraints and seclusion.

A number of other lawsuits have been filed in the aftermath of the water crisis in Flint. A coalition of residents and national organizations sued in January to ensure that safe water be quickly restored to the city. Other residents have sued the state over negligence and to demand people be reimbursed for the sky-high water bills they paid for unusable water.