ACLU Lawyer Explains What $9 Million Special Education Fund Means For Flint Kids

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The water tower at the Flint Water Plant in Flint, Michigan, looms large over the city on March 4, 2016, nearly two years after the start of the city's water crisis. (Geoff Robins/AFP/Getty Images)
The water tower at the Flint Water Plant in Flint, Michigan, looms large over the city on March 4, 2016, nearly two years after the start of the city's water crisis. (Geoff Robins/AFP/Getty Images)

The state of Michigan reached a $600 million settlement for victims of the Flint water crisis, six years after the city's water supply exposed tens of thousands of residents to toxic heavy metals.

The majority of the money will go to children under age 18. Some 8,000 children are believed to have some level of lead poisoning in Flint — and about 150 people died from Legionnaires’ disease, a condition brought on by drinking tainted water.

In addition to the $600 million, the state is also proposing $9 million that will go toward a special education fund for Flint youth. The details of the fund are expected by Oct. 15, American Civil Liberties Union education attorney Kristin Totten says.

In Flint, 28% of students require special education services, compared to a 12% statewide average in Michigan. The settlement is a direct response to the class-action lawsuit brought forth by the ACLU, Education Law Center of New Jersey and White & Case LLP demanding Flint public schools accommodate the increased demand in special education programs.

Five years into working on this case, Totten says the first step was to identify what children need by opening a neurodevelopmental center in Flint, which the state provided $4 million toward. Children are coming to the center with a diagnosis of autism or dyslexia that was unidentified by the school district, she says.

Now, the case continues by making sure kids receive the services to address their needs. This means ensuring districts use evidence and resources to address children's systemic needs, she says.

“Children shouldn't have to figure that out and they're incapable of doing that on their own. And they'll internalize the distress of not meeting the expectations of the adults, and they'll end up either shutting down and entering into the mental health system or acting out and entering into the criminal justice system,” she says. “And we don't want that for any of the children of Flint who've been inflicted with this neurotoxin.”

Hearing stories from families whose children’s lives have been forever altered by lead exposure made working on this case difficult, she says, but this settlement helps her team do something about it. These settlements help families feel seen, heard and supported — rather than gaslighted or as though their child’s invisible disability is in their head.

“Narratives that are racially infused, such as bad families or bad kids, or you're not reading to your child enough, those are just lies that need to be dismissed,” she says. “And we need to get to the truth as to how the children are really struggling and get the families the help that they need.”

In Flint, the pandemic has compounded the existing crises of neurotoxic water and racism, Totten says. Her team is utilizing this time to assess how individualized education programs identify children and dive deep into what the education system needs, she says.

The legal team will next need a judge to approve the fund, she says, and all of the defendants in the ACLU case have signed on.

Even if an impacted child moves away or changes schools, Totten notes that the settlement extends beyond Flint’s city line.

“The money is going to follow the children,” she says. “So all the children that were inflicted, if they have gone to a charter school, if they have gone to another adjacent school district, those districts are going to be able to ask for resources to service the needs of the children of Flint.”

Cristina Kim produced this story and edited it for broadcast with Peter O'DowdAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on August 21, 2020.


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Tonya Mosley was the LA-based co-host of Here & Now.


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Allison Hagan is a digital producer for Here & Now.



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