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After Flint Water Crisis, Number Of Students With Special Needs Spikes

Jessica Gutierrez and her five daughters. (Courtesy)
Jessica Gutierrez and her five daughters. (Courtesy)

More than a dozen families in Flint, Michigan, are suing the public school system, arguing their children were exposed to brain-damaging levels of lead during the water crisis six years ago. 

The parents say that exposure may have caused or exacerbated their children’s special needs. These families will make their case in federal court this summer. 

“What we’re enforcing in this lawsuit in federal court is a federal entitlement statute that children are identified and that their disability-related needs are provided with accommodations and services so that they can access a quality education,” says Kristen Totten, an education attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in Michigan. 

This case is just one of several lawsuits against the Flint school system. The city’s rate of special education students hasgrown steadilysince the water crisis began –– 28% of students are in special education programs, while the national average is about 13%. 

Medical professionals have said there’s no way to prove conclusively that lead has caused new disabilities in Flint. But it has been proven that children exposed to lead are at higher risk of neurological damage and developmental delays.

Jessica Gutierrez, a Flint native and mother of five, says she noticed significant behavioral changes in her children since the water crisis. 

“I’ve had a child that was potty trained and now all of a sudden she has a problem with incontinence,” Gutierrez says. “The worst types of behavioral issues are the ones where you can see that your child realizes that what they’re doing is not normal.”

Her children were tested, and all five were diagnosed with different psychological and development issues. But only one of her children is currently in a special education program.

“If you have the privilege and you have the knowledge about the workings of the school system and you run into a parent or you see a parent or a child that needs help, advocate for them,” Gutierrez says. “And we hope that the cure to fix this problem will come in our time. It’s not just to help the future because we need help now.”

Interview Highlights

On dealing with her children’s change in behavior 

Gutierrez: “The worst thing about that is if you didn’t have a background about why your children were behaving the way that they are, you would think that they’re just inherently being disobedient. So if I jump a little bit forward, the state of Michigan put into play basically a system or a place, a medical place, where you can get your children tested for neurological testing. When you go and you get your child tested and you find out that there is something most definitely wrong with your child, it’s like a retraumatization all over again because, oh, my goodness, all of these times I harshly punished my kid, so you have that to go back over.”

On her children being diagnosed with varying neurological and behavioral issues

Gutierrez: “The thing is, you leave [the doctor] and you’re like, ‘So what do I do now?’ And that’s not the only question that parents have. Some of the teachers that I’ve spoken with are also having that concern. I was pregnant during 2014. I had my baby in 2015. And there are programs early on for the little ones. And so what now they’re starting to see is now this is the influx, the introduction of the children that were just at the precipice of the water crisis. They were in utero. Their parents were drinking the water. They were feeding it to their kids in the bottles. And what they’re seeing with the students is they don’t know how to handle it.”

On how the spike in children who need special education is partly related to school policy

Totten: “We brought this lawsuit back in October of 2016 after approaching the state to say you’re doing things for the 0 to 5 [years old] population, but what are you doing for the K through 12 population? And what they were able to tell us is that they were providing nutritional supplements, some leafy green vegetables and nurses, which is a good thing. But we knew that was going to fall very short as to what the need would demand, because we had been watching Flint even before the water crisis and knowing that they were not meeting their obligations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which one, requires that you find the children who are struggling to learn and then you provide them with a free, appropriate public education. We knew that they weren’t doing this because we were also monitoring the level of suspensions and expulsions from the Flint Community School District, and we found that it was the highest in the state. 

“So we had to file this lawsuit in October of 2016, along with the New York law firm of White & Case and also the Education Law Center of New Jersey. We filed it, and by October 2017, we were realizing not enough is happening. And so we filed a preliminary injunction and we knew that utilizing the psycho educational evaluations that are typical in schools, when you assess to see if a child has a disability, were too subjective. So we filed this preliminary injunction. We had excellent neuropsychologist come out and perform neuroscience on eight of our named plaintiffs and they found devastating impacts. In our case, we don’t have to say that it’s because of the lead. It could be because of the trauma that’s related to the lead. But we know that a neuropsychological evaluation is what really gets into targeting what cognitive functions have been impacted.”

On the emotional impacts of the water crisis

Totten: “There were some assessments done of adults in Flint and a finding of PTSD. We needed to make sure that we filed this lawsuit to tell the families of Flint: We see you. We validate what you’re seeing in your children. And we’re going to make sure that the school district, but more importantly, the Genesee Intermediate School District and the state of Michigan through the Michigan Department of Education sends what resources are needed for what the state inflicted upon these families.”

Marcelle Hutchins produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Kathleen McKenna. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on

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