Lawsuit: Amid Water Crisis, Flint Schools Fail to Meet Needs of Special Ed. Students

By Evie Blad — October 18, 2016 2 min read
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By Evie Blad

In the midst of a lead crisis that threatens the health and well-being of children in Flint, Mich., state and local education officials have not done enough to identify children in need of special education services and to provide those services to qualifying students, a federal lawsuit alleges.

The suit, filed by the Education Law Center and the ACLU of Michigan on behalf of 15 Flint students and their families, says that defendants—the Michigan Department of Education, Flint Community Schools, and the Genesee Intermediate School District—have committed violations of federal civil rights laws, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, through an alleged improper handling of special education services. Plaintiffs seek class-action status.

In anticipation of an expected increase of children in need of services—a fallout of the finding of toxic levels of lead in the city’s water—the lawsuit demands that the defendants take a number of steps, including:

  • Working to identify the academic and behavioral needs of all Flint students;
  • Reworking of discipline practices to avoid “unnecessary suspensions” of students with disabilities;
  • Working with a panel of experts to evaluate current special education services in Flint; and
  • Appointing a special monitor to oversee implementation of the remedies demanded by the lawsuit.

“We know that Flint schools are not currently meeting the needs of special education students, and we know that exposure to lead in drinking water can be highly toxic for children, potentially leading to or exacerbating disabilities,” Jessica Levin, staff attorney for the Education Law Center said in a statement. “It is imperative that the local district and the State of Michigan make sure students are evaluated and provided with appropriate programs and services, especially now that the number of affected students could grow significantly.”

Sixteen percent of the 5,400 students enrolled in Flint Community Schools are qualified to receive special education services, the lawsuit says. Beyond failing to identify new students in need of disabilities services, local schools have not done enough to meet the needs of children already identified, the suit says. Instead, the schools have “resorted to suspension, discipline and shuttling students from school to school with no long-term plan for educational progress or success,” the ACLU says.

Steven Tunnicliff, associate superintendent of the Genesee Intermediate School District, told CNN that the district is reviewing the lawsuit and will not comment on pending litigation. “The GISD has been, and remains, deeply committed to the needs of all students and families in Flint and Genesee County,” he said in a statement.

Other defendants did not return requests for comment.

Photo: Registered Nurse Brian Jones draws a blood sample from Grayling Stefek, 5, at the Eisenhower Elementary School on Jan. 26. The students were being tested for lead after the metal was found in the city’s drinking water--Carlos Osorio/AP

More coverage of the Flint water crisis and Flint schools:

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.