FLINT, MICH. - Special needs students in Flint have been short-changed for years and those problems were compounded by the city's water crisis, the ACLU said in a lawsuit filed today.
The class-action suit, filed on behalf of 15 named children between ages 3 and 17, asks the federal courts to find that the state Department of Education, the Genesee County Intermediate School District and Flint Community Schools are violating the law by failing to ensure that Flint school children "receive access to a free appropriate public education and freedom from disability-based discrimination."
The lawsuit doesn't demand a specific amount of money. Instead, it asks the court to order the schools and the state to provide legally required services such as:
- Early screening and intervention services for 3- and 4-year-olds
- Evaluations for all children at risk of a disability
- Special education services tailored for individual students in the least restrictive environment
- Safeguards against the use of unduly harsh disciplinary measures for disability-related behaviors
"They are not entitled to refuse to provide these services," said Greg Little, one of the lawyers on the case.
Kary Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan described the situation as an educational emergency because of the lead poisoning that occurred in 2014-15 after the city of Flint, under the authority of a state-appointed emergency manager, switched its drinking water source from the Detroit system to the Flint River.
Moss said the state only pays for 28% of cost of provide special education services with the rest coming from the local school districts. Because Flint schools were chronically underfunded, it wasn't in a position to provide the required services for special needs students.
The water switch made a bad situation worse, said Nakiya Wakes, whose 7-year-old son started exhibiting behavioral problems, which she attributes to lead exposure.
"We didn't ask to be poisoned and these kids need to be educated," Wakes said.
Students are being disciplined unfairly, including being secluded from classmates and in some cases, restrained, for behavior related to their disabilities, said Jessica Levin of the Education Law Center, another lawyer in the case.
"The state has put every student at risk of disability," Levin said. "We need systemic relief that is broad and deep and touches every child in the community."
The 130-page complaint asks the court to order state and local school officials to test water in schools regularly and also to provide a list of services to help children who were exposed to lead.
Among the remedies the suit seeks are:
- Universal preschool for all Flint children ages 3-5
- Training for teachers to deal with children whose behavior is impacted by lead exposure
- Creation of an expert group to review special education programs
- A review of discipline procedures to accommodate children with disabilities
- Address ways to expand access to health care for all Flint children
The lawsuit is the latest in a series of suits filed in wake of the water crisis. Others have targeted Gov. Rick Snyder, the state Department of Environment Quality and others for their roles in switching Flint's water source.
Detroit Free Press