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Up to 30,000 Flint kids to get screened for lead impact settlement

The settlement is part of a class-action civil rights lawsuit filed in October 2016 by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and the Education Law Center.
Credit: Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press
A student walks past a drinking fountain covered in a bag to stop students from drinking due to the Flint water crisis during the school day at Northridge Academy charter school in Flint on Thursday February 4, 2016.

Tens of thousands of Flint children who were exposed to lead during the Flint water crisis will be screened to determine whether they need health or special education services, under an unprecedented partial settlement of a federal lawsuit against the state and two school districts.

As part of the settlement, the State of Michigan will pay $4.1 million to cover the cost of the screenings, according to lawyers for the plaintiffs, which include more than a dozen children and parents.

The screening could impact between 25,000 and 30,000 school-age children, as well as younger children who may have been exposed.

"It's a win for our kids," said Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, director of the MSU-Hurley Pediatric Public Health Initiative, who is already leading an effort to identify children and adults exposed to lead and get them connected to any resources they may need.

The settlement is just the first step, said Gregory Little, an attorney with the Education Law Center in Newark, N.J., who said litigation will continue on other parts of the lawsuit, including a crucial push to require children be provided services once they're identified.

The screenings would be done via the Flint Registry, the effort Hanna-Attisha has created thanks to a $14.4-million federal grant that Michigan State University received from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. That registry launches in September.

The settlement, which applies to all Flint children, including those who attend charter schools,was filed Monday in federal court in Detroit. It will need approval by the court. A hearing has been scheduled for Thursday before U.S. District Judge Arthur Tarnow.

The settlement is part of a class-action civil rights lawsuit filed in October 2016 by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and the Education Law Center. The plaintiffs won a victory in September when Tarnow ruled that the case could move forward, rejecting motions from the defendants to dismiss the case.

In addition to the state, the defendants include Flint Community Schools and the Genesee Intermediate School District.

Other details of the settlement:

  • The $4.1 million the state would pay — which is due by July 15 — would cover the planning and initial implementation of the program. The agreement notes that the money "may be subject to legislative approval," and that if the Michigan Legislature fails to approve the money, the agreement "may be declared null and void." If that happens, the plaintiffs will go back to court to force the state to cover the cost.
  • Each defendant will provide, for five years, the equivalent of a full-time employee to help with enrollment, screening, assessment, parental consent, collaboration and communication with the registry. The Flint and Genesee districts agreed to make electronic devices available in schools for parents and guardians to sign their children up for the registry.
  • The Flint district agreed to operate, for five years, a wellness center at each school. The center will assist parents, guardians and students in enrolling in the registry.

The water crisis began in April 2014, when a state-appointed emergency manager switched the source of the city's water supply from Lake Huron water treated in Detroit to water from the Flint River.

After the switch, there was no process in place to require corrosion-control chemicals that could have prevented lead from seeping into the water supply. Residents immediately began complaining about brown water coming out of their faucets. And the crisis forced many to use filters and bottled water. The city switched back to Lake Huron water 18 months later, in October 2015.

Lead exposure can affect people of all ages. But in children, there's a greater risk of developmental delays, behavior problems, difficulty focusing and academic struggles.

The plaintiffs argue in the lawsuit that the defendants have failed to ensure that lead-exposed children are identified and given the help they need.

Diana Wright, president of the board of education for the Flint district, said in a statement Monday that the settlement supports the health and well-being of each student in the district.

"We are pleased to reach an agreement on this important step forward in ensuring our students have the resources they need to minimize the effects of lead on their health, and are grateful to be able to call on the expertise and partnership of Dr. Mona and the Genesee Health System in this matter," Wright said.

The lawsuit centers on three areas: The need to seek out and identify students who've been exposed to lead, the need to provide resources to those who've been identified as being impacted by the lead exposure, and the need for schools to address discipline policies so students aren't being kicked out of school for issues that are related to their disability.

The settlement only addresses the first area of the lawsuit. Hanna-Attisha and lawyers for the plaintiffs said it is key that the other areas are also addressed.

"We will harm children if we diagnose them with something and we do not get them into the proper treatment," Hanna-Attisha said.

Little said the settlement is unprecedented because "it's bringing together for the first time a partnership between the families in Flint, the schools and the public health community."

The remaining parts of the lawsuit will continue to be litigated, but the settlement provides hope that can happen, said attorney Lindsay Heck, an associate at New York-based White & Case, which has been part of the lawsuit from the beginning.

"We believe that parents have been waiting for this," Heck said. "We hope the community can take solace that this will hopefully serve as a template for other communities that may be similarly affected."

Among the parents happy to see a settlement is Kelly Hinojosa, who has three children enrolled in the Flint school district and another child — a 3-year-old — who has been identified as needing early intervention services but hasn't been placed at a school yet.

"It's going to mean a lot," she said of the screening. "They're going to get the services and help that they need. Right now, I'm not getting anything."

"It's a win for our kids," said Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, director of the MSU-Hurley Pediatric Public Health Initiative, who is already leading an effort to identify children and adults exposed to lead and get them connected to any resources they may need. (Photo: Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press)

Hanna-Attisha's Flint Registry already has pre-enrolled more than 900 people. There are about 140,000 people — children and adults — who are eligible because of their exposure, Hanna-Attisha said.

It's similar to the registry created to track the health effects of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. But Hanna-Attisha said the Flint registry goes further.

"It was designed to not just be that long-term monitor. It was designed as a service to get people connected to the resources they need to mitigate this exposure," she said.

That's important, Hanna-Attisha said. "Ethically, professionally, morally, we couldn't just sit back and say, 'Oh, this is how people are doing, this is the effect of the water crisis.' "

The screenings will happen on two levels. First, people like parents, caregivers and teachers will fill out surveys, answering questions that are designed to get at the impact of lead exposure. The screenings themselves aren't diagnostic. "They just raise a red flag ... via questions."

If the survey results point to a problem, such as a developmental delay, behavior problem or a school problem — or if a caregiver simply wants their child to be further assessed in person — then the child will be referred to a neural developmental center. There, the child will receive a four- to eight-hour assessment.

After that session, a diagnosis will be made. It could be that the child is fine and needs no resources. Or, the neural development assessment may identify special education resources that are needed, or services needed in a health care setting, Hanna-Attisha said.

She said that an important part of the settlement is that it doesn't require the creation of a new program and instead "builds on what we already have."

A substantial effort will be needed, though, to ensure people know about the registry and sign up, she said. Parents must give the OK for their child to be screened.

Hinojosa says her children were exposed to the lead from April 2014 until they moved to Houston in October of that year. In Houston, her fourth-grade daughter Ariel Lawson was identified for special education services because of a learning disability. But when they moved back to Flint in September — displaced as a result of Hurricane Harvey —she said she was told by Flint school officials that her daughter was not eligible for special education.

In Houston, "she was making really good progress," Hinojosa said. Now, "she's struggling in school. She's not getting the help she needs."

Heck said the lawsuit would have been valid even if the water crisis hadn't happened, pointing to the school district's poor academic achievement, low graduation rate and high rates of suspension and expulsion.

"Flint was already in a state of emergency," Heck said.

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