FLINT – On behalf of 15 named plaintiffs and tens of thousands of schoolchildren in Flint, the ACLU of Michigan and the Education Law Center filed a class-action civil rights lawsuit in Flint today, documenting ongoing violations of federal education laws by the State of Michigan and local school authorities. The additional demands Flint’s lead crisis now places on the education system to identify and serve affected children require State and local authorities to take immediate steps to fulfill their legal obligations.
“All children can learn,” said Kary Moss, Executive Director, ACLU of Michigan. “Universal, free public education is a cornerstone of our democracy and a basic civil right. But the rights of schoolchildren and their families are being violated every day in Flint. This lawsuit exposes what has gone wrong – including a dysfunctional funding structure -- and demands clear and urgent remedies to make it right.”
Flint families filed a complaint in U.S. District Court in Flint today – D.R. v. Michigan Department of Education – with attorneys from the ACLU of Michigan; the Education Law Center, a national education rights law firm based in New Jersey; and White & Case, a New York-based global law firm.
The lawsuit seeks class action status, injunctive relief and immediate remedies on behalf of thousands of Flint families. Defendants are the Michigan Department of Education (MDE), Flint Community Schools (FCS) and the Genesee Intermediate School District (GISD.)
The legal action shows that beginning in April of 2014, when state officials authorized use of corrosive water from the Flint River for the city’s water supply, nearly 30,000 Flint schoolchildren, from birth to age 19, have been exposed to high levels of lead both at home and in school. Lead levels in public school buildings operated by the Flint Community Schools, measured from October 2015 to January 2016, ranged from 61 parts per billion to over 2,800 parts per billion.
There is no safe level of exposure to lead for children, a neurotoxin that is known to impair cognition and is associated with a wide range of learning and behavioral challenges.
Sixteen percent of the more than 5,400 children enrolled in the Flint Community Schools are currently eligible for special education services. The lawsuit documents that these children are being systematically denied their right to a free and appropriate education. The legal action also shows that FCS, GISD and the State of Michigan are failing to provide a safe learning environment, allocate sufficient resources, ensure the availability of necessary personnel or adequately prepare for a likely increase in special education cases as a result of widespread exposure to lead.
“There is no plan and no program to educate my child. All they do is send him home, with no services and no support,” said Nakiya Wakes, mother of a plaintiff in the lawsuit, a seven-year old boy who has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). During the 2015-2016 school year, while attending a charter school in Flint, Ms. Wakes’ son was suspended from school more than 50 times.
“I know my son can learn,” said Ms. Wakes. “But he can’t learn when he’s not in school, with no resources for him to make up the school work he’s missed.”
During the 2014-2015 school year, the suspension/expulsion rate for special education students in Flint Community Schools (13.6 percent) was more than five times higher than the rate for special education students in all Michigan school districts (2.5 percent). The excessive suspensions and expulsions of children with learning challenges are directly attributable to the lack of resources in Flint schools.
Another plaintiff in the lawsuit filed today, an eight-year-old boy, was handcuffed while in a third-party after school program. Another plaintiff, a six-year old boy with an Individual Education Plan (IEP) that specified his food allergies, nearly died when he was given food to which he was allergic. Instead of using an Epipen and calling an ambulance, the school called the child’s mother, who arrived to find him on the floor, covered in vomit and blue in the face from lack of oxygen.
The lawsuit documents these and other specific, ongoing violations of three federal laws: the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) of 2004, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
“The extensive lead poisoning in Flint has combined with the lack of essential special education resources in the Flint schools to create a tragic crisis," said Gregory Little, a partner at White &Case and a board member of the Education Law Center. “By insisting on a positive learning environment for all students, this lawsuit will help all children and families in Flint.”
“The government’s own actions in exposing the community to elevated lead levels has put every child at risk,” said Jessica Levin, staff attorney at the Education Law Center. “Now more than ever, families have the right to expect that the public education system will address their children’s special education needs.”
The lawsuit shows that MDE, FCS and GISD have failed to provide health and education screening to identify students who need special education services and failed to provide necessary accommodations to enable all students to achieve a meaningful education.
Remedies requested in the lawsuit include:
- Steps to identify the academic and behavioral needs of all Flint students in the FCS school district.
- Implementation of positive behavioral interventions, in every school, with training and support to all personnel interacting with students.
- Prevention of unnecessary and illegal suspensions and expulsions.
- Requiring all Flint schools to provide special education services and accommodations for children with disabilities.
- Oversight and monitoring of corrective measures needed to meet the educational needs of all students.
- Convening of a panel of experts to evaluate current special education services in Flint.
- Appointment of a Special Monitor to oversee implementation of the remedies.
The ACLU of Michigan helped expose the Flint Water Crisis in July 2015, publishing a previously undisclosed internal memo from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that documented toxic levels of lead in the homes of Flint residents.