Thousands of children who may have been exposed to elevated levels of lead in the Flint water supply will now be screened to see if they need special education or health care services.
The testing comes after an agreement was reached by attorneys for Flint school children with the Michigan Department of Education, Genesee Intermediate School District and Flint Community Schools (FCS). The settlement is part of a class-action civil rights lawsuit filed in October 2016 by the ACLU of Michigan and the Education Law Center. It will be final after an April 12 court hearing in Detroit, subject to court approval.
Under the agreement, the state of Michigan will provide more than $4 million by July 15 to get the program up and running by September 2018, according to attorneys handling the case.
The program will leverage the Flint Registry, a population-wide screening platform, and expanded assessment services by the Genesee Health System/Hurley Children’s Hospital Neurodevelopmental Center of Excellence (NCE). It will be organized and operated under the leadership of Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, director of the Michigan State University-Hurley Children’s Hospital Pediatric Public Health Initiative, and will begin at the start of the 2018-19 school year.
The registry was created thanks to a $3.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to Michigan State University awarded last year. The funds are the first installment of a 4-year, $14.4 million grant and are being used in partnership with the City of Flint leadership and other community organizations, clinical partners and educators, and stakeholders that serve Flint residents.
The dollars are to address community health concerns related to lead exposures, monitor health outcomes among registrants, and expand efforts to reduce and eliminate lead in the community.
Families of children exposed to elevated lead levels in the drinking water can enroll their children in the Registry, complete a screening, and have them referred for further assessment by the NCE. Assessment will include neuropsychological testing, which is important for evaluating the effects of lead on cognitive development, memory and learning.
Participation in the program is voluntary and parents and guardians of eligible children must consent for screening, assessments, and sharing of information with school and health care providers.
Screening, assessment and treatment services are reimbursable with Medicaid, subject to its terms, conditions, and eligibility requirements, according to the attorneys who said they received confirmation from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
Under the agreement, the state, city and school district will provide staff to facilitate and maximize participation in the program and collaboration between the program and the schools. In addition, training and professional development will be provided for administrators, teachers and staff about the program and how to recognize children potentially harmed by lead who may need to be referred for assessments. The results of the assessments will be sent to the schools to be used in the process of evaluating students for special education services.
“The children and families of Flint have lived with exposure to lead in their water and with schools unequipped to help students whose learning may be affected by this dangerous neurotoxin,” said Greg Little, chief trial counsel at Education Law Center. “The program set up in the agreement is a major milestone on the road to addressing the needs of children affected by the Flint water crisis.”
The lawsuit challenges systemic deficiencies in Flint’s special education program, including failures to find and serve children with special needs and to address the impact of the water crisis, which potentially put thousands of children at risk of developing a disability or worsening an existing disability, the attorneys said.
The agreement is just the “first step,” said Lindsay Heck, an attorney at White & Case, another law firm involved in the case. “In the next phase of the lawsuit we will work to ensure that FCS schools have the resources to provide the children of Flint with the educational opportunities they deserve and to which they are entitled under the law.”
Attorneys, who are working pro bono for the Flint parents and children, will continue to pursue additional claims, including the provision of appropriate special education services and proper student discipline procedures.