Michigan ACLU sues schools after Flint water crisis

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flint water crisis lead gupta dnt ac_00031308

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Story highlights

  • ACLU of Michigan is suing school districts that serve Flint, Michigan
  • 30,000 children there were exposed to lead
  • The suit claims schools dole out harsh punishments to struggling students

(CNN)The ACLU of Michigan is suing school districts that serve Flint, saying there are inadequate services for the 30,000 children there who were exposed to lead through the water supply.

The class action lawsuit filed Tuesday also alleges that the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is being violated by not providing ongoing screening or timely referrals for learning disabilities. It specifically notes 11 Flint families whose children have disabilities but weren't evaluated for special education, and some who were allegedly punished with expulsion from school rather than given treatment for their disabilities.
    Health officials cannot say whether there has been a spike in health issues because of the water crisis, however the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there is no safe blood lead level in children. Lead exposure in children can lead to behavioral problems, developmental delays, learning disabilities and other health issues.
    "There is an astronomically high number of expulsions and suspensions," said Kary Moss, the executive director of the ACLU of Michigan. "So there isn't anything being done to help kids. One of our clients has been suspended 50 times. We have parents asking for their kids to be assessed and that's not being done for months. There's not vision or hearing screening. There are classes with 30 or 40 kids. "
    Instead of adequate resources for children the Flint schools dole out harsh punishments, according to Moss. Children are punished with "physical restraints and seclusion techniques," the suit reads.
    Flint parent Nakiya Wakes said it was her 7-year-old son who was suspended 50 times last year, during which she said she was begging the school to evaluate him for special education classes.
    "I kept pleading with the school that he needed an IEP -- individualized education plan. But they were still suspending him," Wakes said.
    Her son, now 8, and his sister both tested for high levels of lead last year, Wakes said. "They were not willing to work with me."
    Wakes said there was one time her son had fingerprints on his arms from being held down by school staff.
    "The response was negative discipline policy," she said. "One person held one arm, the other person had an arm, then another had a leg. It doesn't take four adults for a first-grader. They held him down so hard he had fingerprints on his arms. That's too tight.
    "These schools are not providing the services they're supposed to be. We need positive discipline policies. These kids are going to need help through college. Lead is irreversible -- they're going to need help the rest of their lives."

    'Education is the antidote'

    The city's economic decline has left Flint Community Schools with a $10 million deficit, according to the ACLU of Michigan. In the last few years, as the population declined and schools began to close, classroom sizes got larger and there are fewer resources. The ACLU is also suing the Genesee Intermediate School District, where Flint children can attend school, and the Michigan Department of Education.
    "For the children of Flint, education is the antidote to the public health crisis they have endured," the lawsuit reads. "Aggressive measures must immediately be taken to redress the failures of the Flint public education system. If not, Flint will also become a national symbol of the irreversible consequences when government at all levels abandons its children."
    It goes on to say that "in the wake of the Flint lead crisis, Flint children face an unprecedented educational and civil rights disaster."
    Though Flint schools were failing before the water crisis began two years ago, some changes have already been made. More than a dozen new nurses were hired in the two school districts that serve Flint. An early childhood center was opened in one of Flint's formerly shuttered school buildings.
    But Moss says those changes are not necessarily permanent, and notes that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder barely mentions the schools in his 75-point plan to help Flint after water crisis.
    "If there's a real sense of fixing the city, making it a place that people want to move to, the schools have to be part of the conversation. How do you not talk about the schools?" she said.
    A spokesman for the governor's office said they don't comment on pending litigation, but said, in addition to funding for more nurses and the early childhood education program, the state has also been working with schools to make sure there are adequate water filters, and safety protocols.
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    "Education is a high priority for Governor Snyder, which is clearly demonstrated, in part, by the increase of $1 billion in education funding since he took office and dramatic increases in early childhood education initiatives in Michigan," a spokesman said.
    Steven Tunnicliff, associate superintendent of the Genesee Intermediate School District, said the district is is reviewing the lawsuit and will not comment on pending litigation. "The GISD has been, and remains, deeply committed to the needs of all students and families in Flint and Genesee County," he wrote to CNN.
    In a statement emailed to CNN, Flint Community Schools Superintendent Bilal Tawwab said: "The health and well-being of Flint Community Schools students remains a top priority. A number of additional wrap around services, support programs and initiatives have been implemented to support students and their families. The district is aware of the lawsuit and is reviewing the details as appropriate. As with all legal matters, we are unable to provide specific comment on pending litigation."
    A spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education declined to comment.