Of the many well documented consequences of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan—including a decrease in fertility and an increase in infant deaths—there is another that has not gotten as much press: lead exposure in children can negatively impact IQ, concentration and academic achievement. And now, as more Flint children seek special education services, the city has instituted a new program to help them.
The city of Flint launched a universal health screening and evaluation program as part of a $4 million 2018 settlement in a civil lawsuit. Filed by attorneys representing Flint children and brought against the Michigan Department of Education, the suit targeted special education conditions in the city’s public schools.
The Neurodevelopmental Center of Excellence in Flint is conducting the screenings. It is currently processing 1,000 referrals and expects to receive more in the coming months.
Per The Detroit News:
[Greg] Little [of the Education Law Center], said neuropsychological testing is a key component of properly evaluating children who have been exposed to lead because it is uniquely able to pinpoint impairments of cognitive functioning that may be caused by exposure. Schools can then target educational interventions and support the student’s needs, he said.
"It is anticipated that additional students will be identified as in need of special education, and current students with disabilities will have their special education plans revised through the registry’s screening and evaluation program," Little said.
The publication also reports that the number of special education students in Flint schools has increased from 14.88 percent in the 2014-15 school year—when the water crisis began—to 19.77 percent in the 2017-18 school year. The state’s special education rate is 13.6 percent.
As a result of this increase, activists and experts are demanding that Michigan give Flint additional resources to fund the city’s special education services.
"While the screening is a very important first step and victory, it is ultimately meaningless if you don’t have the staff and services that [special education] children need,” Lindsay Heck, an attorney who represented Flint children in the case against the Michigan Department of Education, told The Detroit News. "That gap between the resources and the students who are identified as special education is going to widen, making it worse and worse."
The Flint water crisis began with the majority-Black city’s April 2014 decision to switch its water source from the Great Lakes Water Authority to the Flint River.
"You are going to have generations of children with disabilities in Flint," Marcie Lipsitt, an education advocate, told The Detroit News. "Without early intervention or early evaluations to understand how these children think and learn it will be a vicious cycle of children who fail."