In Flint, Schools Overwhelmed by Special Ed. Needs in Aftermath of Lead Crisis

Parent advocate Maxine Onstott, shown cuddling with her son Maximilliano, 6, said many families are having a hard time getting help for their children’s disabilities in the wake of the water crisis.
Parent advocate Maxine Onstott, shown cuddling with her son Maximilliano, 6, said many families are having a hard time getting help for their children’s disabilities in the wake of the water crisis.
—Brittany Greeson for Education Week
| Corrected: August 28, 2019
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Flint, Mich.

Years after reports surfaced of alarmingly high lead levels in the water system, the toll of the crisis is becoming clear: At least 1 in 5 students in Flint's public schools are eligible for special education—and the school system is buckling under the weight of federal requirements and costs for providing programs and services.

The percentage of special education students has increased by 56 percent, rising from 13.1 percent in 2012-13, the school year before the water crisis began, to 20.5 percent last school year.

Schools are understaffed. Teachers are overwhelmed. Parents are frustrated.

"It's been a fight," said Maxine Onstott, a leader of a citywide special education parent-advocate group. Her autistic 6-year-old son, Maximilliano, began kindergarten this month. "There [are] a lot of children right now that are not getting the services they need and that are not getting the support they deserve to get from the schools."

The fallout in Flint could foreshadow problems in other districts. Schools across the country have found elevated lead levels in drinking water.

Maxine Onstott, who heads a parent advocacy group in Flint, plays with her son Maximilliano, 6, who is autistic.
Maxine Onstott, who heads a parent advocacy group in Flint, plays with her son Maximilliano, 6, who is autistic.
—Brittany Greeson for Education Week

In a suit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, the Education Law Center, and the New York-based firm of White & Case, lawyers representing Flint families have sued the school system, the Michigan education department, and the Genesee County Intermediate school district, alleging systematic failure to meet the needs of special education students. The Genesee district helps oversee special education services in Flint and other county districts.

While the lawsuit does not pin the increased need for special education services solely on the prolonged lead exposure, research has linked lead toxicity to learning disabilities, poor classroom performance, and increased aggression.

"Any amount of lead is damaging to a child's brain development, and clearly a number of children in Flint were overexposed," said epidemiologist and pediatrician Philip Landrigan, whose research in the 1970s in El Paso, Texas, was among the first to show that lead can cause brain damage to children at levels too low to cause clinically evident signs and symptoms.

In Flint, families drank, bathed, and cooked in their homes with lead-laced water from the Flint River for 17 months before the problem was discovered and the water supply was shut off. The contamination occurred when the city switched its water supply from Lake Huron as a cost-cutting measure.

Still more children have suffered lead exposure because of lead-based paint in the city's older, deteriorated housing stock, said Landrigan, a professor of biology and the director of the Global Public Health Program and the Global Observatory on Pollution and Health at the Schiller Institute for Integrated Science and Society at Boston College.

"The combination of lead in paint and lead in water is a double whammy," Landrigan said.

City officials say the water is safe to drink now, but the water fountains and faucets in the schools remain off-limits for students. Even so, the percentage of special education students in Flint could continue to rise as children born during the water crisis begin to enroll in the city's schools.

A System in Stress

In an interview with television station WJRT, Flint schools Superintendent Derrick Lopez said that 28 percent of the district's students have individualized education programs this school year. That's more than double the national average of 13 percent.

Lopez did not respond to interview requests from Education Week. But, in a prepared statement from the district's public relations firm, he responds by saying: "The Flint Community schools district is deeply committed to the well-being and success of all students."

For Onstott, though, trying to secure educational support for her son has been one big waiting game: waiting months for an updated individualized education program or IEP, waiting weeks for special education staff to return her calls, waiting hours in district offices to plead her case for help.

"I should be able to walk into my child's school and know and trust that everybody that has interaction with him is doing the best things for him," Onstott said. "You're supposed to be able to trust your child's school, and I don't."

The water crisis has further eroded trust in a city and school system already decimated by deindustrialization and urban decay.

Flint was a city once fueled by General Motors jobs. Many of those jobs are gone, poverty is pervasive, and few cities report more violence per capita.

At the peak of the city's manufacturing boom in the 1960s, Flint had 54 school buildings and close to 50,000 students. Four decades later, enrollment has dropped to less than 4,500, declining 35 percent since the water crisis began.

Many families with the resources to do so have left town. Those left behind are disproportionately poor and in need of extra support.

The lead poisoning has made "an absolutely terrible situation significantly worse," said Gregory Little, the chief trial counsel at the Education Law Center, a Newark, N.J.-based nonprofit that advocates for at-risk students.

The Flint schools "simply do not have the resources to provide these programs and services," Little said.

Ebony Dixon, center, said she is struggling to get special education for her daughter, Alexus Smith, 6, and her son, Torea Gibson, 7, in Flint, Mich.
Ebony Dixon, center, said she is struggling to get special education for her daughter, Alexus Smith, 6, and her son, Torea Gibson, 7, in Flint, Mich.
—Brittany Greeson for Education Week

Ebony Dixon, a mother of two children identified for special education services—a son, 7-year-old Torea, diagnosed with autism, and a daughter, 6-year-old Alexus, deemed to be cognitively impaired—has struggled with that reality for years.

Dissatisfied with the services in Flint schools, Dixon faces a constant dilemma: Should she leave her home in the city behind and head to a more affluent school district?

Tracking the Growth of Special Education in Flint

The percentage of students who qualify for special education services in Flint has grown from 13.1 percent in the school year before the water became contaminated to 20.5 percent last school year.

2012-13: 13.1%

2013-14: 15.1%

2014-15: 15%

2015-16: 16.7%

2016-17: 17.4%

2017-18: 19.8%

2018-19: 20.5%

Dixon has moved to neighboring school districts more than once, only to return because she was unable to make ends meet.

"It's been a struggle at times," she said.

Dixon said that she doesn't want to leave now that her children have started school, but even if she did, "I'm still stuck here."

Overwhelmed Teachers

Unable to recruit and retain qualified special education teachers, the school district has resorted to filling vacancies with long-term substitutes and hires from temp agencies. As many as 25 percent of special education teaching and support jobs in the Flint schools have been filled that way, the lawsuit against the district alleges.

William Therrien, a special education professor at the University of Virginia Curry School of Education and Human Development, has visited Flint twice since 2017 to interview parents and current and former teachers to evaluate the special education services in place after the water crisis. He provided a declaration of his findings in support of the lawsuit against the Flint schools.

Therrien documented a number of problems, including a glaring shortage of teachers qualified to work with special education students.

"If we don't have effective educators and enough of them, we're identifying [children in need of special education] for no reason," said Therrien, a former K-12 special education teacher.

Torea Gibson, 7, and his sister, Alexus Smith, 6, play at home in Flint. Their mother, Ebony Dixon, said she is struggling to get appropriate services for the children, who both have special needs.
Torea Gibson, 7, and his sister, Alexus Smith, 6, play at home in Flint. Their mother, Ebony Dixon, said she is struggling to get appropriate services for the children, who both have special needs.
—Brittany Greeson for Education Week

Part of the challenge for Flint is that teaching candidates can earn tens of thousands of dollars more in neighboring school systems.

But the issues for teachers extend beyond the struggles to find and retain qualified staff members, teachers said.

Classroom sizes and caseloads for support-staff members, such as speech therapists, have swelled as a consequence of the staffing shortages.

And training to help teachers address student anxiety and aggression has missed the mark, making it more difficult to connect with students who are exhibiting problems in class, according to the local teachers' union affiliate.

The lawsuit also seeks to address the Flint schools' increased reliance on suspensions and related discipline measures to deal with student behavior. The district's suspension and expulsion rate for special education students is four times higher than the state average.

One family in the suit had a child suspended from school more than a dozen times in one school year—and even placed in restraints in an attempt to control him. The child, now a 4th grader diagnosed with ADHD, has since left the district and is enrolled in online classes.

Maximilliano, who started kindergarten this year, plays around his home.
Maximilliano, who started kindergarten this year, plays around his home.
—Brittany Greeson for Education Week

Joanna Coselman, a special education teacher at Flint's Durant-Tuuri-Mott Elementary School, said: Learning has "to come later. You have to feel safe, you have to feel secure."

Union members have reported more student-on-teacher attacks and increased aggression from parents as well. In response, the district has added security in every building to help manage relationships with frustrated parents and to limit in-school confrontations.

"I've had parents come at me," Coselman said."[I say] 'We're not going to do this in front of the kids. Let's go the office. You can yell and scream at me all you want.' "

'Long-Sustaining Disaster'

Flint is not the only school district dealing with lead concerns.

From coast to coast, lead-contaminated water has emerged as a problem aggravated by aging school buildings and plumbing and tight repair budgets.

Hundreds of schools in dozens of districts have identified similar problems. School leaders in big-city districts such as Detroit; Newark, N.J.; and Portland, Ore., have shut off water in buildings for months or years at a time.

Children’s drawings hang in the hall at Educare, a public preschool in Flint, Mich., serving an influx of students with special needs.
Children’s drawings hang in the hall at Educare, a public preschool in Flint, Mich., serving an influx of students with special needs.
—Brittany Greeson for Education Week

A study released earlier this year from the Harvard School of Public Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation suggests the problem may be even more widespread. It found that half of students in the United States attend schools in states that do not have programs for testing drinking water for lead.

Among the schools that do test, about 40 percent have yielded samples with elevated lead levels.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 98,000 public schools and a half-million child-care facilities are not regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the federal law designed to ensure safe drinking water.

In fact, there is no federal policy that mandates lead testing in schools.

The Genesee Healthy System's Neurodevelopmental Center of Excellence, which provides universal health screening and neurological assessments for families, opened as a result of a $4 million settlement agreement by the lawyers representing Flint children in the ongoing lawsuit against the Flint schools and the state education department.

The current phase of the lawsuit is focused on ensuring that the lead-exposed children receive the special services and resources they are entitled to under federal and state law.

Related Blog

Months after the school district shut off its own water fountains in 2015, the district sent a letter to parents about the water crisis warning that: "It is impossible, at this point, to forecast how it will impact us, our schools, and our children."

Almost four years have passed, and the school district, the state, and the families they serve still don't know the full impact of the lead contamination on the children bearing the brunt of it.

"It's a long-sustaining disaster that society has turned their head away from," said Therrien, the special education professor. "Time really is of the essence here. Years and years are going to go by, and the children that need help the most are going to suffer."

Vol. 39, Issue 02, Pages 1, 14-15

Published in Print: August 28, 2019, as Special Ed. Surge Strains Flint Schools And Families
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Correction: 
An earlier version of this story misstated the name of law firm White & Case.

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