Dive Brief:

  • A class action lawsuit settlement includes at least $9 million in funding for Flint, Michigan-area students with disabilities and for other students and districts impacted by lead that was found in drinking water for up to 18 months, according to a joint press release by the plaintiffs’ lawyers.
  • The money, provided by defendants Michigan Department of Education, the Genesee Intermediate School District and Flint Community Schools, will be used to:
    • Establish a special education fund to strengthen the services and supports for students with disabilities.
    • Provide $1 million in supplemental assistance for countywide special education transportation and more than $1 million to fund FCS’ staff and services during the 2020-21 school year.
    • Assess Flint’s preschools for universal high-quality, developmentally appropriate programs.
    • Review and update Genesee County’s special education program.
    • Continue the work of the Neurodevelopmental Center of Excellence, established through $4 million for universal screening and in-depth neuropsychological assessments if needed to all children impacted by the water crisis.
  • ​Filed by Michigan families in 2016, the plaintiffs claimed the state and districts failed to identify, evaluate and provide services for Flint’s students with disabilities, and wrongly suspended and expelled those students. The lead crisis, it states, increased special education needs.

Dive Insight:

The public health crisis in Flint began in 2014 with a change to the city’s source of drinking water, based on a desire to save money. A transition to the Flint River, which was characterized as temporary during a transition to a new water provider, resulted in the eventual detection of E. coli and total coliform bacteria, disinfection byproducts and high lead levels. Officials also reportedly didn’t treat the water to ensure it didn’t corrode pipes.

A September 2015 study found elevated levels of lead in the blood of 2.1% of children age 5 and under. It’s estimated as many as 12,000 children were impacted. Exposure to lead and copper through drinking water is known to cause health problems.

According to the Center for Disease Control, lead poisoning can cause learning disabilities and behavioral problems. Children under the age 6 are most at risk of health problems due to their rapid growth trajectory. Children living in older houses are also at risk of exposure. Elevated blood levels have been found in 3% of Black children compared to 1.3% of White children.

Lead poisoning in children can also cause developmental delays, as well as abdominal pain, vomiting, constipation, hearing loss and seizures, according to the Mayo Clinic. The long-term impact of childhood exposure to lead is evident in those who were children in Kellogg, Idaho, during the 1970s, when many residents were exposed to lead after the local mine and lead smelter ran without emission control for about 18 months. Adults who were exposed to high levels of lead as children report teeth rotting at a young age, abdominal pain, violent outbursts and trouble concentrating.

Years of inadequate funding and infrastructure has left aging school buildings with facilities that could cause lead contamination. Water contaminated with lead was found in New York City and Los Angeles school systems in 2018 and, since 2016, has also been found in Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit and Portland, Oregon.

Though most states don’t require lead testing, more than 40% of school districts tested their buildings by 2019 and 37% of those districts addressed high levels of lead found. In Maryland, where testing is required, Montgomery County Schools found 1.8% of more than 13,000 water fixtures had over-the-limit lead levels. Fixing the problem cost the district about $500,000. 

Schools can test for lead on their own by using grant funding and partnering with health departments. Once lead is found, districts can prevent further exposure by taking preventative measures to protect students from exposure, such as shutting off water fountains.

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