Cinq ans après le début de la crise de l'eau à Flint, un nombre record d'enfants de la région ont des difficultés d'apprentissage – voici leurs histoiresoktober 15, 2019
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- In 2014, Flint, Michigan, began experiencing a water crisis. Lead from old pipes began seeping into the water supply, rendering it undrinkable and unsafe.
- A class-action lawsuit has secured funding to establish a neurodevelopmental screening and evaluation program for all school-age Flint children impacted by the water crisis.
- But the program has had a slow start. The settlement was finalized in April 2018, but the center did not become fully operational until December 2018. So far, only 108 students out of tens of thousands of children potentially exposed to lead in Flint’s water have been evaluated.
- Common diagnoses so far have included learning disabilities, mild cognitive impairment, and ADHD.
- Now parents are hoping to secure additional resources for special education in the underfunded Flint Community Schools.
- In the meantime, tap water in Flint Community Schools buildings remains undrinkable.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories
FLINT, Michigan — In 2015, testing at Freeman Elementary in southeast Flint, Michigan, revealed that drinking water in the school had the highest lead levels of all buildings in the district. Four years later, Freeman teacher Bethany Dumanois still spends at least 20 minutes of the school day lining up students and handing them 4-oz. paper cups to fill from water jugs. The tap water in the school, Dumanois said, is still not safe to drink.
Dumanois has worked in Flint Community Schools for 25 years, 22 of them teaching first and second graders at Freeman Elementary on the city’s southeast side. She lived through the city’s water crisis, and continues to see its impact on the students coming through her classroom five years later.
According to the EPA, even slightly elevated levels of lead exposure “have been linked to damage to the central and peripheral nervous system, learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing, and impaired formation and function of blood cell” in children.
“What we’ve seen over the last few years is an increase in aggressiveness, short tempers, and a decrease in cognitive ability,” said Dumanois. “We’ve seen that their short term memory is very short, from hour to hour.”
A spike in learning disabilities and a lack of special education
Flint officials have said that the water crisis is over, but many locals are still refuse to drink tap water. And, they say, they’re seeing profound effects from the tainted water on the children in their community. A 2016 class-action lawsuit filed by Flint parents charged that the state failed “to identify and evaluate all Flint students in need of special education programs and services,” and failed “to provide the necessary special education services in the least restrictive environment.” The suit also charged that students with disabilities were had unfairly been disciplined, suspended and expelled.
“Kiddos present with things like learning disabilities, cognitive impairment on the mild end, and ADHD,” Dr. Katherine Burrell, who heads up the Neurodevelopmental Center of Excellence at the Hurley Medical Center in Flint, told Insider. “Quite a few that are coming in don’t have special education, and are coming in with learning disabilities or even a mild cognitive impairment that has never been picked up.”
That was the case with Ethan Reynolds. He’s been shuffled through four elementary schools since the water crisis began in 2014, and was nearly expelled in 2018 until Michigan ACLU attorney Kristin Totten intervened on his behalf.
After receiving a neurodevelopmental assessment, Ethan was given an autism diagnosis. But, says his mother Heather Reynolds, that doesn’t mean he is now receiving appropriate services. Ethan’s Individual Education Program (IEP) requires that he be accompanied throughout the school day, one-on-one, by a paraprofessional. But the school district, which has lost 77% of its student body over the past 14 years, has a severe shortage of resources including trained paraprofessionals. Often, says Reynolds, the paraprofessional will only be available for part of the school day or will be assigned a substitute teaching role in the school for the day. Which leaves Ethan on his own.
“But that’s not Ethan’s problem,” Heather Reynolds said. “What are we supposed to do? We have to have a person in there. [The school district] would rather be in violation of an IEP. What I really need is the school to keep up their end.”
Getting the school district to provide the mandated services specified in Flint kids’ Individual Education Program is the next focus of the continuing class-action lawsuit, according to attorney Lindsay Heck of White & Case LLP, one of the lawyers providing pro-bono services to the case.
“There’s been chronic underfunding in Flint. It’s been chronically understaffed,” said Heck. “And as a result, the Flint schools are just not equipped to deliver these programs and services, which children there desperately need.”
The number of Flint children who were identified for special education services was around 15% before the water crisis, according to Heck. That number jumped to 20% at the end of the last school year. Meanwhile, special education positions are going unfilled; Heck’s team found that a quarter of positions were vacant five weeks into the 2018-19 school year.
What this often means, according to Heck, is that instead of receiving the services they are entitled to by law, special education students are disciplined, suspended, or expelled. Heck’s class-certification brief cites data from Michigan’s MI School Data website showing that the number of students with IEPs expelled from the district increased by 282% between the 2012-13 and 2013-14 school years. She also found that between 2013 and 2016, the number of special education students suspended for ten days or more ranged between five and 10 times the state average for such students.
Special education students are left to fend for themselves
Nathan Whitehead is one of those students experiencing frequent suspensions. He has multiple learning issues including problems with speech, attention, and outbursts and he has not yet received a concrete diagnosis. On September 30, after returning to school from a ten-day suspension from Durant-Tuuri-Mott Elementary, Nathan left the building without permission. According to his grandmother Tammie Whitehead, the school responded by calling the police, who brought Nathan home in handcuffs.
Whitehead moved to Flint about six months before the water crisis began. She has permanent chemical burns on her arms and nerve damage that she said was caused by showering. She blames the water for her dental injuries. She said that Nathan also suffered rashes during the crisis, and Whitehead believes Nathan’s problems were exacerbated by his exposure.
“All of [his symptoms] got worse. He doesn’t know as much as he used to know,” said Whitehead.
Whitehead says Nathan is often restricted to the special education classroom for the entire school day, including lunchtime, and does not receive sufficient structure. Whitehead does not have access to transportation, and because of his multiple suspensions, Nathan is not eligible for Michigan’s school of choice program that would enable him to attend a different school. Whitehead would like to move back to Oakland County, where she said Nathan received adequate special education services before they moved to Flint.
“They have nothing for these kids that need help, not just for mine, for all of them,” says Whitehead. “They just stick them in a room and corral them like animals. They have no training. And they don’t even have patience.”
According to Totten, systemic change is needed in the overwhelmed district, and that’s what the lawsuit is hoping to accomplish.
“When the water crisis happened, we knew that they would have to do something more to address the system of injustice around special education because they were already struggling with meeting the needs of kids. And we knew that the needs would be increased, ” she said. Totten notes that although the suit targets the Flint Community Schools, she is cognizant that the district is as much a victim of the water crisis as are the students.
“It’s difficult because this was inflicted upon them,” she said. “All of those decisions happened at the emergency manager level. So that’s what got us really involved … knowing that this would be the aftermath — the burden of lead that children would have to carry. We want the state to acknowledge what happened, and say, ‘we see you, we know what you’re struggling with and we’re going to bring the resources to help you with that.'”
Whitehead said she hopes that all students in the district with special needs will get the appropriate interventions.
“It’s not just for my kid, but for all the kids in Flint,” she said. “They all deserve to get the help they need.”
- Read more:
- A water crisis outside New York City has surpassed Flint, according to a pediatrician who helped uncover the Flint disaster
- Elon Musk donated $423,600 to Flint public schools to buy laptops for all of its seventh and eighth-grade students
- Charges dropped against 8 people in Flint water scandal
- ‘We’re heading in the right direction’: Flint appears to be turning the corner on its massive water crisis