Flint Students Secure Groundbreaking Gains in Settlement of Special Education Class Action Lawsuit
5 min read
Today, children exposed to lead in their drinking water for up to 18 months during the Flint Water Crisis have reached a groundbreaking settlement in their federal class action lawsuit seeking urgently needed special education services.
The settlement will provide immediate supports for Flint children impacted by lead, as well as longer term requirements to restructure and improve the delivery of special education services to all students with disabilities in public schools serving Flint and Genesee County.
"Lead-poisoned children in Flint must be provided with all of the supports they need to learn and flourish," said Jeree Brown, a Flint mother with two children in Flint public schools and a plaintiff. 'The settlement is designed to make sure they're not left behind."
"The schools were not identifying the children of Flint who were harmed by lead and those schools were not providing the programs and services the children so desperately needed. This groundbreaking settlement addresses each of these concerns and will lay the foundation for an overhaul of the special education system. These systemic improvements to special education will have a significant and positive impact on these children and the Flint community going forward," said lead trial lawyer, Gregory G. Little, Chief Trial Counsel for Education Law Center.
All three defendants in the case—the Michigan Department of Education (MDE), the Genesee Intermediate School District (GISD), and Flint Community Schools (FCS)—have agreed to provide additional funding and services to settle the case. The terms of the settlement, which is subject to approval by the court, include:
- The distribution of at least US$9 million from the State of Michigan to establish the Flint Water Crisis Special Education Fund (SEF), which will be used to strengthen the services and supports that students with disabilities receive in school.
- The provision of supplemental assistance from the GISD to FCS and other districts impacted by the Flint Water Crisis, including $1 million for county-wide special education transportation and over $1 million in staff and services for FCS during the 2020-2021 school year.
- A comprehensive assessment of preschool programs intended to ensure the delivery of high-quality, developmentally appropriate universal pre-school for all three- and four-year-olds in Flint.
- A comprehensive modification of the GISD's county-wide special education program plan. The current plan dates from 2004, and will be thoroughly reviewed, with community input, to ensure effective delivery of special education services to all Genesee County children with disabilities, as required by Michigan law.
- The modification of the GISD special education plan to seek voter approval for additional, recurring funding for special education services for students throughout Genesee County.
- Continued implementation of the unprecedented partial settlement of the "child find" claims reached earlier in the case. That settlement established the groundbreaking $4 million Neurodevelopmental Center of Excellence, which offers universal screening, and in-depth neuropsychological assessments when necessary, to all Flint children impacted by the Flint Water Crisis.
"This is a landmark settlement in our special education case," said Lindsay M. Heck, lead attorney from global law firm White & Case LLP, which worked on the case pro bono. "Lead is a potent neurotoxin that causes irreversible brain damage. There is no medical intervention that can completely counter the effects of lead exposure—education offers the only antidote. This settlement establishes a model to identify children with disabilities, to create structural changes that will ensure that those disabilities are properly addressed, and to prevent school discipline from being used as a substitute for behavioral interventions. It is a model that will not only transform the educational system for Flint children, but that establishes a framework for underfunded school districts in urban communities with deteriorating infrastructures that serve predominantly Black and Brown children. These communities have endured decades of educational disinvestment and environmental racism. We are committed to making sure this settlement turns Flint into a national symbol of resilience and hope."
"The exposure to elevated lead is a tragic crisis that poses lifelong challenges and learning disadvantages for Flint families," said Dr. Lawrence Reynolds, a member of the Genesee Health Department Board of Directors, the former Head of Pediatrics at Mott Children's Health Center, and current Health Advisor to Flint Mayor Neeley. "The Flint lawsuit has brought attention to the stark reality that lead exposure disproportionately impacts children in school districts segregated by race and poverty nationwide."
Kristin Totten, education attorney for the ACLU of Michigan, said: "Flint children with disabilities were not receiving the special education services they needed even before the water crisis. Instead, the schools were using disciplinary tools like suspensions and expulsions. For the last five years, the children and their families have fought to obtain programs and services critical to address the harms inflicted upon them. We are hopeful that this infusion of additional resources will give them the support they need, so that they and their school district don't have to carry the burden alone."
Flint-area families and their attorneys and consulting experts will continue to play a crucial role in working with MDE, GISD and FCS to develop, implement, and monitor the settlement in the months and years ahead. This will include increased efforts to inform Flint-area parents, residents, activists and concerned citizens about the settlement and encourage their active participation in the historic opportunities for systemic reform in the delivery of special education services in Genesee County.
The legal team representing the students includes attorneys from the ACLU of Michigan, Education Law Center, and global law firm White & Case LLP, which offered its services pro bono. The legal team engaged as experts Dr. Gail E. Lovette and Dr. William J. Therrein of the University of Virginia, Dr. Theodore Lidsky, and Dr. Vicki Sudhalter. All of the experts contributed their invaluable services pro bono.
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