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A federal lawsuit that claims state and local school authorities have failed to ensure that lead-exposed children in Flint are receiving an appropriate education can move forward, a judge ruled today.
U.S. District Judge Arthur Tarnow rejected requests from the Michigan Department of Education, Flint Community Schools and the Genesee Intermediate School District to toss the case.
The lawsuit alleges that special needs students in Flint have been shortchanged for years, a problem compounded by the city’s lead-tainted water crisis.
Greg Little, chief trial counsel at the Education Law Center and an attorney for the children, said the judge’s ruling was “an important hurdle to overcome.”
“Flint already has a significant number of students with special education needs,” he said. “That number will likely go up due to the effects of lead to which all children in Flint were exposed. It is vital that the local school system be ready to meet their needs.
“We look forward to ultimately prevailing at trial and bringing well deserved relief to the children of Flint.”
The lawsuit was filed in October 2016 on behalf of 15 children between the ages of 3 and 17. It says tens of thousands of kids are at risk of having a disability because of lead poisoning.
Flint’s water crisis began to unfold in 2014 after the city, under the authority of a state-appointed emergency manager, switched its drinking water source from the Detroit system to the Flint River. Lead is a neurotoxin that causes cognitive, developmental and behavioral impairment in children.
Attorneys for the kids argue that school officials violated federal education laws that protect disabled people.
The lawsuit does not seek monetary damages. Rather, it asks the court to force the defendants to provide legally required services, including special education services and accommodations for children with disabilities.
Donald Miller, attorney for Flint Community Schools, declined to comment Friday on the judge’s ruling. Timothy Mullins, an attorney for the intermediate school district, did not return a message.
Bill DiSessa, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education, said he can’t comment on pending litigation. A spokesperson from the office of Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, which is defending the department, did not return a message.
Attorneys for the defendants argued, among other things, that the plaintiffs failed to exhaust an administrative hearing process used to settle disputes under federal education laws. The judge didn’t buy it.
Tarnow also wrote that children’s attorneys are clearly seeking a systemic changes in the way all children in the Flint School District are identified, placed and educated. He said they have “emphatically illustrated that the alleged violations are widespread across the Flint schools and repetitive in nature.”
The judge, however, side with Flint Community Schools on one issue: free, city-wide preschool.
“There is no showing that this court has the power to order the creation of public universal preschool,” the judge wrote, saying the decision is best left to state government. He dismissed the plaintiffs’ request for universal preschool.
Other remedies the plaintiffs are seeking include:
• Steps to identify the academic and behavioral needs of Flint students
• Implementation of positive behavioral interventions in every school, with training and support to all personnel interacting with students
• Safeguards to prevent 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
• Creation of an expert group to review current special education programs
The lawsuit also asks the judge to appoint a special monitor to make sure that the remedies are put in place.
The children’s attorneys plan to seek class-action status on behalf of 30,000 people. That figure includes includes 15,000 school-age children, plus 15,000 children who are not yet old enough for school or who are young adults eligible for education services, said Kristin Rinehart Totten, education attorney for the ACLU of Michigan.
ACLU of Michigan officials lauded the ruling as a major victory.
“We know the Flint water crisis is not over because thousands of children have not been evaluated for disabilities,” Executive Director Kary Moss said. “Congress passed laws to make sure that children with special needs have a right to learn. This couldn’t be more important than in Flint where so many children were poisoned by lead in the water.
“Today, the court has given Flint children a chance by ruling that they deserve, at the very least, an opportunity to show that they have not yet received the services to which they are entitled under federal law and how they can and should be helped with sufficient state and local intervention.”
Along with the ACLU of Michigan and the Pennsylvania-based Education Law Center, the children are being represented by the New York law firm of White & Case.
Contact staff writer Ann Zaniewski at 313-222-6594 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @AnnZaniewski.
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