Flint, Michigan Schools in Crisis Due to Lead Contamination!

The Flint River.

Dear Commons Community,

Five years after Michigan switched Flint’s water supply to the contaminated Flint River from Lake Huron, the city’s lead crisis has migrated from its homes to its schools, where neurological and behavioral problems — real or feared — among students are threatening to overwhelm the education system.  As reported by The New York Times:

“The contamination of this long-struggling city’s water exposed nearly 30,000 schoolchildren to a neurotoxin known to have detrimental effects on children’s developing brains and nervous systems. Requests for special education or behavioral interventions began rising four years ago, when the water contamination became public, bolstering a class-action lawsuit that demanded more resources for Flint’s children.

That lawsuit forced the state to establish the $3 million Neurodevelopmental Center of Excellence, which began screening students. The screenings then confirmed a range of disabilities, which have prompted still more requests for intervention.

The percentage of the city’s students who qualify for special education services has nearly doubled, to 28 percent, from 15 percent the year the lead crisis began, and the city’s screening center has received more than 1,300 referrals since December 2018. The results: About 70 percent of the students evaluated have required school accommodations for issues like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, also known as A.D.H.D.; dyslexia; or mild intellectual impairment, said Katherine Burrell, the associate director of the center.

Medical experts say there is no way to prove that the lead has caused new disabilities. Pediatricians here caution against overdiagnosing children as irreparably brain damaged, if only to avoid stigmatizing an entire city. The State Department of Education, in battling the class-action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and the New Jersey-based Education Law Center, enlisted an expert who testified that the real public health crisis was not the lead-contaminated water but the paranoia of parents, students and teachers exposed to it.

But Dr. Burrell said that proving the cause of the students’ problems was not the point. Many of the problems uncovered by the lead testing could certainly have existed before.

And school officials said the problems would almost certainly get worse because there was no safe level of lead exposure.

“What the research says is that as they get older, and the cognitive demands get harder, we will start to see the demands get higher, and the resources aren’t going to be there,” said Lisa A. Hagel, the superintendent of the Genesee Intermediate School District, the county that includes Flint.

Long before Flint’s water system was contaminated, its schools exemplified the struggles of urban districts — as its tax base shrank, its student population drifted to charter schools and its core public schools were left with a small but troubled and impoverished student body.

In the 1960s, the city enrolled nearly 50,000 students in more than 50 buildings. Today, it educates 4,500 students on 11 campuses. A 2017 report found that 55 percent of Flint’s students attended charter schools — the second-highest charter enrollment in the country.

When the lead crisis began unfolding in 2014, the tiny school district had a $21 million budget deficit that required it to cut more than 200 staff members, including special education teachers. It was transferring millions of dollars from its operating budget to pay for special education, and in violation of federal law, it was segregating special education students from their peers for most of the school day. Flint’s teachers were and are among the lowest paid in Genesee County, though a new contract has pushed starting salaries to $35,339 a year, from $32,000 in 2014.

In the 2013-2014 school year, 15.5 percent of the district’s special education students dropped out of high school, compared with 8.63 percent statewide. In 2014-2015, 13 percent of special education students in the school system were suspended or expelled for more than 10 days — more than five times the statewide rate.

Then came the lead crisis. The class-action lawsuit, filed in 2016, accused the city, the county and the Michigan Department of Education of ignoring dismal outcomes that have worsened after Flint’s children were exposed to lead.

“We have a school district where all that’s left are damaged kids who are being exposed to other damaged kids, and it’s causing more damage,” said Stephanie Pascal, who has taught in Flint for 23 years.”

This is a travesty for the schools and its students.



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