Opinion
School Climate & Safety Opinion

Flint Educator: Our Water Crisis Is a Crisis of Trust

By Arina Bokas — February 08, 2016 3 min read
Grant Porter, 5, watches as his mother Ardis Porter, 26, has her blood drawn for lead testing last month in Flint, Mich.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

At Mott Community College, where I teach writing, the fall semester began as usual, with only one noticeable difference: Above the many drinking fountains frequently in use, now there were signs warning students and staff about the safety of the water. This didn’t come as a big surprise to many students, over 80 percent of whom are “in district,” and many of whom have graduated from the Flint, Mich., public schools. Given the college’s location in close proximity to downtown Flint, Mott’s water was supplied by the now-infamous Flint water system.

During my class, as we explored the genre of argument, one student considered writing about the city’s water issue. He looked hesitant, unsure whether it was a worthy subject. “They say the water’s OK,” he added. “I don’t think it is. I live here.”

He was right. In late September, just a few days after this class, Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician at Flint’s Hurley Medical Center, released a report showing that for children under the age of 5, the rate of elevated lead concentration in their blood had doubled and, in some cases, even tripled since the city switched from Detroit Water and Sewerage Department water to Flint River water a year prior. Within a couple of weeks, Dan Wyant, the director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, announced that water at three public schools tested above the safety standard set by the federal government. The state called for parents and families to have their children’s blood tested.

To foster family and community partnerships with schools, trust is not an option; it is the foundation.

Understandably, Flint families were frightened for their kids, as the realization that the city’s water had been poisoned for months started to settle in. Was it a mistake? An oversight?

The U.S. Congress and other arms of the government may still be working to determine who is responsible for the contamination, but my students have already figured one thing out. To them, it is not a “water” issue; it is a betrayal of trust, and it is deeply personal. “Will the public come to trust the city again after this disaster?” wrote one of them. “Will the public come to trust our state?”

I can detect the pain of disillusionment and panic in their questions, as if some internal values had been shaken to the very core. They are losing this sacred, foundational faith that younger generations have always been taught to have in adults, especially those holding a public office with the power to serve and protect them.

In recent years, there has been a lot of talk in education about trust. To succeed in a world where social systems and cultures are quickly evolving, where nothing that happens in one part of the world can stay hidden from another part of the world, young people have to develop confidence in our institutions and in each other. As educators, we nurture in our students dispositions for benevolence, honesty, openness, reliability, and competence. We explain to them why, in our interconnected world, we have to rely on one another and how important it is to do our part well. We encourage collaboration in our classrooms.

But it goes deeper than that. Student learning is profoundly connected to other processes happening inside a human body. Our experiences shape who we are. What students experience in their lives outside the classroom affects their disposition inside the classroom, influencing their ability to learn and have confidence in others. They are deeply affected by family beliefs and values.

For decades, research has shown that students learn best when schools and families work together. One of the main reasons schools struggle to create partnerships with the parental community is a lack of public confidence in school effectiveness, teacher competence, and the integrity of school leaders. To foster family and community partnerships with schools, trust is not an option; it is the foundation.

As we—teachers, school administrators, and district leaders—strive to develop mutual trust with families and communities, there is one important thing to realize: We, too, represent the official power in the eyes of those who depend on us to do things right. When someone fails to live up to that responsibility, we all fail in the public’s eye.

In 2007, ASCD’s Commission on the Whole Child delineated six out-of-school factors that impede kids’ learning: low birthweight and nongenetic prenatal influences on children; inadequate medical, dental, and vision care; food insecurity; environmental pollutants; family relations and stress; and neighborhood characteristics. How many of these factors have been affected in Flint in the last 18 months as a result of lead consumption is still largely unknown.

What does seem clear, however, is that such a high-profile betrayal of trust by public officials has, to a certain degree, affected all of us.

A version of this article appeared in the February 17, 2016 edition of Education Week as Dispatch From Flint, Mich.: Our Water Crisis Is a Crisis of Trust

Events

Budget & Finance Webinar Staffing Schools After ESSER: What School and District Leaders Need to Know
Join our newsroom for insights on investing in critical student support positions as pandemic funds expire.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
How can districts build sustainable tutoring models before the money runs out?
District leaders, low on funds, must decide: broad support for all or deep interventions for few? Let's discuss maximizing tutoring resources.
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
College & Workforce Readiness Webinar
Roundtable Webinar: Why We Created a Portrait of a Graduate
Hear from three K-12 leaders for insights into their school’s Portrait of a Graduate and learn how to create your own.
Content provided by Otus

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety Video 3 Steps for Schools to Use Relationships as a 'Prevention Strategy'
Research has shown that strong school relationships can be a prevention strategy for chronic absenteeism, misbehavior, and other challenges.
7 min read
Four high school students work together on an experiment in an AP chemistry class at a high school in Los Angeles, Calif. on Wednesday, January 22, 2020.
Four high school students work together on an experiment in an AP chemistry class at a high school in Los Angeles, Calif. on Wednesday, January 22, 2020.
Allison Shelley/EDUimages
School Climate & Safety Uvalde Shooting Victims' Families Sue State Police, Settle With City for $2M
The families say they also agreed a $2 million settlement with the city, which will be used on better training for local police.
3 min read
Crosses are surrounded by flowers and other items at a memorial on June 9, 2022, for the victims of a shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. The families of 19 people who were killed or injured in the shooting and their attorneys are set to make an announcement, Wednesday, May 22, 2024.
Crosses are surrounded by flowers and other items at a memorial on June 9, 2022, for the victims of a shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. The families of 19 people who were killed or injured in the shooting and their attorneys are set to make an announcement, Wednesday, May 22, 2024. Friday will mark the two-year anniversary of the shooting where a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers.
Eric Gay/AP
School Climate & Safety Opinion How Do Restorative Practices Work?
Traditional punitive measures tend to reap more misbehavior.
13 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty
School Climate & Safety What Helped These K-12 Leaders After School Shootings
School shootings leave deep and lasting impact on the community, including those charged with leading students and staff in the aftermath.
5 min read
School staff cheer as students returned to in-person classes at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School in St. Louis on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023, following a shooting on Oct. 24, 2022, that killed a student and a teacher. Kacy Shahid, then the school's principal, faced the challenge of guiding the school community through recovery as she struggled herself to process the events.
School staff cheer as students returned to in-person classes at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School in St. Louis on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023, following a shooting on Oct. 24, 2022, that killed a student and a teacher. Kacy Shahid, then the school's principal, faced the challenge of guiding the school community through recovery as she struggled herself to process the events.
Jim Salter/AP