Babies Hurt By Flint's Water Are Struggling In School. Thanks, Fiscal 'Conservatives.'

The children of Flint, Michigan, haven't gone away. They're in school -- have been from the start of the 2014 water crisis, of course. But now the babies harmed at the very beginning of the lead poisoning emergency are reaching school age, and as public radio station WBUR's "Here and Now" reports, Flint schools have a far higher percentage of kids in special education than in schools in areas not treated to lead-poisoned water due to a Republican governor's fiscal shock policy.

[Flint's] rate of special education students has grown steadily since the water crisis began — 28% of students are in special education programs, while the national average is about 13%.

In response, over a dozen Flint families, with help from the ACLU of Michigan, the Education Law Center of New Jersey, and a private law firm, are suing the Flint school district and the Michigan Department of Education in federal court. They argue that the school district and state haven't been meeting their obligations to identify kids with special needs and provide them with an appropriate education as required by federal law. It's one of several ongoing lawsuits over the lead poisoning.

While the lawsuit was filed by 15 Flint families as plaintiffs, the attorneys are seeking to expand it to a class action that would cover all the kids in Flint. The case should be going to trial later this spring.

Here's the radio story, which focuses on Jessica Gutierrez, a mother of five. She's one of the plaintiffs in the suit, and has noted behavioral changes in her kids.

I've had a child that was potty trained, and now all of a sudden she has a problem with incontinence going on for about three and a half years. The worst types of behavioral issues are the ones where you can see that your child realizes that what they're doing is not normal. The worst thing about that is if you didn't have a background about why your children were behaving the way that they are, you would think that they're just inherently being disobedient.

Gutierrez said that after her kids got neuropsychological screening and she learned they hadn't just been acting out but had diagnosed problems, it was

like a retraumatization all over again because, "oh, my goodness, all of these times I harshly punished my kid," so you have that to go back over.

Gutierrez said that teachers and the schools are starting to be overwhelmed by the kids affected by the water crisis:

I was pregnant during 2014. I had my baby in 2015. And there are programs early on for the little ones. And so what now they're starting to see is now this is the influx, the introduction of the children that were just at the precipice of the water crisis. They were in utero. Their parents were drinking the water. They were feeding it to their kids in the bottles. And what they're seeing with the students is they don't know how to handle it.

The lawsuit uses what feels like an ingenious strategy to sidestep one of the toughest hurdles that would get in the way of directly suing the state over the effects of the water, since it's difficult to medically prove a conclusive link between a particular child's intellectual disabilities and the lead poisoning. But the effects absolutely show up in the community, in the form of "higher risk of neurological damage and developmental delays."

ACLU of Michigan education attorney Kristen Totten says the lawsuit doesn't need to establish any proof of a connection between the kids' symptoms and the lead in the water, as long as the suit can show there's been a violation of federal education law:

We had been watching Flint even before the water crisis and knowing that they were not meeting their obligations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which, one, requires that you find the children who are struggling to learn and then you provide them with a free, appropriate public education. We knew that they weren't doing this because we were also monitoring the level of suspensions and expulsions from the Flint Community School District, and we found that it was the highest in the state.

In a partial settlement in the lawsuit, the state agreed in early 2018 to make sure every kid in Flint can have access to an "independently run, state-of-the-art screening program designed to detect disabilities associated with lead exposure."

The remaining parts of the lawsuit are aimed at getting the kids who have been diagnosed the appropriate special education and other resources they need, as well as reforming the disciplinary system, which the ACLU argues has given kids punishment and expulsion instead of treatment for educational disabilities. And let's remind you all once again that if any of this had been happening in wealthy white communities in Michigan, there'd still be lawsuits, but the state wouldn't have let the lead exposure go on nearly as long.

Yeah, this is going to cost the state of Michigan a fuckton of money. Maybe, just maybe, it will also send Republican leaders a message that focusing solely on the immediate costs of decisions aimed at "saving money" can come back and bite them in the ass. And the wider costs — in diminished opportunity and lifetime health issues — are already being borne by the children of Flint. If only we could find a way to take every last penny from former Michigan governor Rick Snyder and all the austerity-preaching bastards who made this happen.

[WBUR radio / ACLU of Michigan / Michigan Radio]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.


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