Curry School professors William Therrien and Gail Lovette have been working pro bono with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan since the fall of 2017 to provide their expertise in special education for the class action lawsuit in relation to the Flint water crisis. The partial settlement reached in April through this lawsuit — which addresses the lack of special education resources available to students in the Flint public schools who have been impacted by the water crisis — allows all children in Flint to have access to free neuropsychological screenings.
In April 2014, the Flint community changed its water supply to the Flint River in an effort to decrease costs. By October 2015, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality announced that it found elevated levels of lead in the water supply of three Flint public schools.
Studies indicated that the elevated lead levels were a consequence of the lack of anti-corrosive water treatment. Children who had been exposed to unsafe levels of lead for prolonged periods of time were expected to display an increase in neurobehavioral changes, which would indicate a greater need for special education resources.
On behalf of 16 students, the ACLU of Michigan filed a class action lawsuit in October 2016 against the Flint community schools, Michigan Department of Education and the Genesee Intermediate School District.
According to Therrien, the prevalence of children requiring special education services should have increased after the prolonged exposure to lead, a neurotoxin. However, Therrien said the number of students eligible for special education actually decreased after the Flint water crisis.
Lovette and Therrien were tasked with analyzing whether the school system was able to fulfill its obligations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a federal law that protects the rights of students with special education needs through two main tenets. The Child Find program — a mandate included in IDEA — requires schools to have the resources to identify children under the age of 18 with disabilities. The second part of the program is for the schools to then provide these children with a free and appropriate public education.
In the preliminary injunction leading to the partial settlement, Lovette and Therrien analyzed the Child Find process in the Flint schools to determine whether they provided adequate support. They worked with attorneys and interviewed parents, students and teachers in Flint to determine whether the school had a pathway in place to help identify students with special education needs.
According to Lovette, the Flint public schools were unable to identify students who needed further help and denied outside assessments from professional pediatricians and neurologists.
“What we found is that there were not safeguards in place for these students and that the schools were not finding them eligible or even providing with them an adequate educational experience,” Lovette said.
Ari Adler, director of Communications at the Office of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R), which oversees the Michigan Department of Education, said that following the Flint water crisis, the governor’s office issued provisions to hire school nurses for the students and implement additional healthcare and nutritional services in Flint communities.
“We made sure that students were getting the attention that they needed if they were experiencing any difficulties,” Adler said.
Therrien said the effects of lead poisoning in children can manifest in several ways from behavioral disabilities to hyperactivity to difficulties in executive functioning. Lovette said the effects of lead can continue to impact the brain and development even after it is no longer detectable in the blood, as lead can settle into bones.
Therrien compared the contaminated water supply in Flint to a natural disaster which overwhelmed the entire school system.
“They didn’t have the resources to go out and identify these individuals that had disabilities,” Therrien said. “And they also didn’t have the expertise. Schools aren’t used to going and looking and dealing with a sizeable population that has been exposed to lead.”
As a result of the partial settlement reached in April which focused on Child Find, all children in Flint will now have access to free neuropsychological screenings instead of having to go to private practices for costly procedures. The schools will also be able to access the results of all the screenings and will be expected to provide the appropriate support to each student, according to Lovette.
According to Adler, measures to support children who were affected by the Flint water crisis were in place as early as 2015 — prior to the filing of the class action lawsuit.
“Resources vary for the schools in the school districts, depending on what their programs are and such,” Adler said. “[The governor’s office] provided funding to the schools, and we provided resources to make sure that young kids who were exposed to lead were given proper treatment and were monitored for any additional help. That’s something we’re beginning to work with [the Flint schools] on.”
However, identifying children with special needs is not enough, said Therrien. The next step is to ensure that individuals who need help are able to receive it.
Lovette said the current case is continuing in court as she and Therrien assess whether the school system has the appropriate resources to provide an education to children with special education needs due to the lead poisoning.
Adler declined to comment on past litigation or pending lawsuits.
Lovette said the school system is not prepared to handle special education children in its current state. For instance, not all of the classrooms in Flint are staffed with qualified, certified teachers.
“Because identifying individuals that need help but not providing them with help isn’t much help after all,” Therrien said. “Really the most critical thing is making sure we provide them with a free, appropriate public education which is the second core and critical tenet of [the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act].”