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The Flint (Mich.) school district struggles to provide resources for children affected by lead-contaminated water.

Lead-contaminated water in Flint, Mich., has overwhelmed school resources

The Flint school district struggles to provide resources for children with behavioral problems and neurological symptoms linked to the city's tainted water supply

Five years after Michigan switched Flint’s water supply from Lake Huron to the lead-saturated Flint River, the city’s lead crisis has migrated from its homes to its schools, where neurological and behavioral problems — real or feared — among students are threatening to overwhelm the education system.

The New York Times reports that the contamination of water in Flint exposed nearly 30,000 schoolchildren to a neurotoxin known to have detrimental effects on children’s developing brains and nervous systems. Requests for special education or behavioral interventions began rising four years ago, when the water contamination became public.

A class-action lawsuit forced the state to establish the $3 million Neurodevelopmental Center of Excellence, which began screening students. The screenings then confirmed a range of disabilities, which have prompted still more requests for intervention.

The percentage of the city’s students who qualify for special education services has nearly doubled, to 28 percent, from 15 percent the year the lead crisis began, and the city’s screening center has received more than 1,300 referrals since December 2018. The results: About 70 percent of the students evaluated have required school accommodations for issues such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, or mild intellectual impairment, says Katherine Burrell, the associate director of the center.

“We have a school district where all that’s left are damaged kids who are being exposed to other damaged kids, and it’s causing more damage,” says Stephanie Pascal, who has taught in Flint for 23 years.

School officials say the problems almost certainly will get worse because there is no safe level of lead exposure.

“What the research says is that as they get older, and the cognitive demands get harder, we will start to see the demands get higher, and the resources aren’t going to be there,” says Lisa A. Hagel, the superintendent of the Genesee Intermediate School District, the county that includes Flint.

When the lead crisis began unfolding in 2014, the Flint school district had a $21 million budget deficit that required it to cut more than 200 staff members, including special education teachers. It was transferring millions of dollars from its operating budget to pay for special education, and in violation of federal law, it was segregating special education students from their peers for most of the school day. Flint’s teachers were and are among the lowest paid in Genesee County.

Then came the lead crisis and the class-action lawsuit. It accused the city, the county and the Michigan Department of Education of ignoring conditions that have worsened after Flint’s children were exposed to lead-tainted water.

The suit accuses the school systems of violating federal and state laws, including the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, by failing to identify students who could qualify for special education services, by failing to provide the mandated instructional services to those who do qualify and by punishing children for disability-related behavior.

Students were denied assessments for education plans or behavioral intervention plans, and then were segregated from their peers, secluded and restrained, repeatedly sent home from school, expelled or arrested, the lawsuit asserted.

The Flint district says it is “deeply committed to the well-being and success of all students, and continues to add staff and enhance special education services, and to work with the Michigan Department of Education to seek ways to improve the district’s finances long term.”

The Genesee Intermediate District maintains it has done all it can to help identify and serve students affected by the crisis in Flint. Under the state’s education system, that district acts as an intermediary between the state and the 21 school districts in the county, including Flint, providing administrative services and dispensing special education funding.

In 2016, months after the water contamination was made public, the Flint superintendent at the time, Bilal Tawwab, told Congress that schools were bracing for an “evolving, educational emergency.”

“We need resources to measure the intellectual and emotional damage done to each and possibly every child,” he said.

Instead, as the district’s special education rate rose by a third, and the Michigan Education Department demanded more budget cuts and a salary freeze.

Flint’s schools are now in a downward spiral. The district is funded on a per-pupil basis, but it is hemorrhaging students, about 1,000 since 2014, when the crisis began. Two-thirds of children living in Flint are in charter schools or schools run by the Genesee Intermediate School District.

The district’s new superintendent, Derrick Lopez, said in a recent interview that the district was in desperate need of help, pointing out that the 28 percent of students who have special education plans was double the state average. He also expressed the need to “actually pay our teachers a living wage.”

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