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Flint's Children Suffer in Class after Years of Drinking the Lead-Poisoned Water

The city’s schools, stretched even before the lead crisis, are struggling with demands for individualized education programs and behavioral interventions for children with high lead exposure.

Nakiya Wakes and her son, Jaylon, in Flint, Mich., Brittany Greeson for The New York Times

FLINT, Mich. — Nakiya Wakes could not understand how her wiry, toothy-grinned 6-year-old had gone from hyperactive one school year to what teachers described as hysterical the next. Then, in 2015, the state of Michigan delivered a diagnosis of sorts: Ms. Wakes’s neighborhood’s water — which her son, Jaylon, had been drinking and bathing in for more than a year — was saturated with lead, at some of the highest levels in the city.

Jaylon would cycle through two schools, receive 30 suspensions and rack up 70 unexcused absences. In one of Ms. Wakes’s clashes with Flint Community Schools, she delivered administrators a warning: “You can’t keep suspending him because soon, you’re going to have to suspend the whole school system.”

Five years after Michigan switched Flint’s water supply to the contaminated Flint River from Lake Huron, the city’s lead crisis has migrated from its homes to its schools, where neurological and behavioral problems — real or feared — among students are threatening to overwhelm the education system.

The contamination of this long-struggling city’s water exposed nearly 30,000 schoolchildren to a neurotoxin known to have detrimental effects on children’s developing brains and nervous systems. Requests for special education or behavioral interventions began rising four years ago, when the water contamination became public, bolstering a class-action lawsuit that demanded more resources for Flint’s children.

That lawsuit forced the state to establish the $3 million Neurodevelopmental Center of Excellence, which began screening students. The screenings then confirmed a range of disabilities, which have prompted still more requests for intervention.

The percentage of the city’s students who qualify for special education services has nearly doubled, to 28 percent, from 15 percent the year the lead crisis began, and the city’s screening center has received more than 1,300 referrals since December 2018. The results: About 70 percent of the students evaluated have required school accommodations for issues like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, also known as A.D.H.D.; dyslexia; or mild intellectual impairment, said Katherine Burrell, the associate director of the center.

“We have a school district where all that’s left are damaged kids who are being exposed to other damaged kids, and it’s causing more damage,” said Stephanie Pascal, who has taught in Flint for 23 years.

Medical experts say there is no way to prove that the lead has caused new disabilities. Pediatricians here caution against overdiagnosing children as irreparably brain damaged, if only to avoid stigmatizing an entire city. The State Department of Education, in battling the class-action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and the New Jersey-based Education Law Center, enlisted an expert who testified that the real public health crisis was not the lead-contaminated water but the paranoia of parents, students and teachers exposed to it.

But Dr. Burrell said that proving the cause of the students’ problems was not the point. Many of the problems uncovered by the lead testing could certainly have existed before.

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“We’re not here to prove causation,” she said. “We’re here to provide answers.”

The Flint River in downtown Flint. Five years after Michigan switched the city’s water supply to the lead-saturated river, Flint’s lead crisis has migrated to its schools.  Credit...Brittany Greeson for The New York Times

And school officials said the problems would almost certainly get worse because there was no safe level of lead exposure.

“What the research says is that as they get older, and the cognitive demands get harder, we will start to see the demands get higher, and the resources aren’t going to be there,” said Lisa A. Hagel, the superintendent of the Genesee Intermediate School District, the county that includes Flint.

Long before Flint’s water system was contaminated, its schools exemplified the struggles of urban districts — as its tax base shrank, its student population drifted to charter schools and its core public schools were left with a small but troubled and impoverished student body.

In the 1960s, the city enrolled nearly 50,000 students in more than 50 buildings. Today, it educates 4,500 students on 11 campuses. A 2017 report found that 55 percent of Flint’s students attended charter schools — the second highest charter enrollment in the country.

When the lead crisis began unfolding in 2014, the tiny school district had a $21 million budget deficit that required it to cut more than 200 staff members, including special education teachers. It was transferring millions of dollars from its operating budget to pay for special education, and in violation of federal law, it was segregating special education students from their peers for most of the school day. Flint’s teachers were and are among the lowest paid in Genesee County, though a new contract has pushed starting salaries to $35,339 a year, from $32,000 in 2014.

In the 2013-2014 school year, 15.5 percent of the district’s special education students dropped out of high school, compared with 8.63 percent statewide. In 2014-2015, 13 percent of special education students in the school system were suspended or expelled for more than 10 days — more than five times the statewide rate.

Then came the lead crisis. The class-action lawsuit, filed in 2016, accused the city, the county and the Michigan Department of Education of ignoring dismal outcomes that have worsened after Flint’s children were exposed to lead.

The partial settlement that established the neurodevelopmental center was a “critical first step,” said Kristin Totten, a lawyer with the A.C.L.U., but the lawsuit is demanding that every Flint student be assessed and get needed intervention.

“This was an unprecedented crisis that warrants an unprecedented response,” she said.

The suit accuses the school systems of violating federal and state laws, including the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, by failing to identify students who could qualify for special education services, by failing to provide the mandated instructional services to those who do qualify and by punishing children for disability-related behavior.

Students were denied assessments for education plans or behavioral intervention plans, and then were segregated from their peers, secluded and restrained, repeatedly sent home from school, expelled or arrested, the lawsuit said.

“The blame for this crisis lies on the state, and instead what we’ve seen is that the children are shouldering the blame,” said Lindsay Heck, a lawyer at White & Case, a New York-based law firm that has worked on the case pro bono.

Flint Community Schools said in a statement that it was “deeply committed to the well-being and success of all students, and continues to add staff and enhance special education services, and to work with the Michigan Department of Education to seek ways to improve the district’s finances long term.”

The Michigan Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment.

Jaylon would go on to cycle through two schools, receive 30 suspensions and rack up 70 unexcused absences.  Credit...Brittany Greeson for The New York Times

Bottles of water on the kitchen floor of Ms. Wakes’s home.  Credit...Brittany Greeson for The New York Times

Jaylon now attends the Michigan Virtual Charter Academy, an online school, in his living room.  Credit...Brittany Greeson for The New York Times

The Genesee school district maintains it has done all it can to help identify and serve students affected by the crisis in Flint. Under the state’s education system, that district acts as an intermediary between the state and the 21 school districts in the county, including Flint, providing administrative services and dispensing special education funding from the federal government. It also operates early childhood centers and schools attended by Flint students.

School officials say that funding is disbursed equitably, but they acknowledge it is not enough. Congress promised to cover 40 percent of the cost of special education, but Washington funds only 14 to 17 percent.

“It’d be safe to say there’s not enough allocation, much less when you have a situation like this,” said Steven Tunnicliff, the associate superintendent of the Genesee Intermediate School District, referring to the lead crisis.

Ms. Wakes believes she lost four babies — she miscarried two sets of twins, in 2015 and in 2017 — to the water crisis, and said she is determined not to lose another. She pulled her son out of Flint Community Schools in 2017 after she said the district ignored her pleas to accommodate his A.D.H.D., which his pediatrician said was exacerbated by elevated lead levels.

Now 10, he attends the Michigan Virtual Charter Academy, an online school, in his living room. On a recent day, he fired up his computer and made a few clicks before the screen flashed a celebratory “Assignment Complete,” then shut down abruptly. The assignments meet the requirements of a 10-year-old boy who is repeating fourth grade: They contain three- or four-letter words that he can read and they pose no more than eight questions, and then he can take a break to run outside or play his video game Fortnite.

“I’m just keeping him online until we can move the hell out of Flint,” his mother said.

In 2016, months after the water contamination was made public, the Flint superintendent at the time, Bilal Tawwab, told Congress that schools were bracing for an “evolving, educational emergency.”

“We need resources to measure the intellectual and emotional damage done to each and possibly every child,” he said.

Instead, as the district’s special education rate rose by a third, the Michigan Education Department demanded more budget cuts and a salary freeze. Last school year, when one in five students qualified for special education services, one in every four special education teaching positions was unfilled.

Angy Keelin helping her blind son, Averey, brush his teeth. Averey left the Flint school district after it abruptly ended a program for visually impaired students.  Credit...Brittany Greeson for The New York Times

The year after Averey was exposed to lead, he had to repeat kindergarten.  Credit...Brittany Greeson for The New York Times

“He has so much to overcome in adulthood,” Ms. Keelin said. “I don’t want him to be continuously held back.”  Credit...Brittany Greeson for The New York Times

Bethany Dumanois, who has taught in Flint for 25 years, works two jobs to keep teaching because she said she cannot abandon children whose discolored, rash-covered skin and chunks of exposed scalp haunt her. In the earlier days of the crisis, she spent class time addressing questions from her students about whether they would die from the water like their class lizard, a bearded dragon, did.

“There was very minimal training in dealing with the signs and symptoms of lead poisoning,” she said. “They gave us a couple of brochures and called it a day.”

Teachers refer students for special education assessments, knowing the schools lack psychologists to conduct them. In small acts of defiance, they withhold their signatures from bureaucratic documents rejecting students from special education services.

Ms. Dumanois said her first graders were having “extreme” reactions to insignificant issues, knocking over desks and throwing chairs. Recently, she said, three-quarters of her class could not recall five words they had gone over every day for two weeks.

Instead of investing in more teachers, social workers and special education aides, she said the district had pushed laptop computers and iPads, “just jumping on any bandwagon, trying to sugarcoat what’s happening with these kids.”

On a recent night at a local restaurant, Ms. Pascal, the 23-year Flint teaching veteran, vented over the “injustices everywhere.” The district adopted a new reading program with no money to buy the instructional materials. She had been asked to identify a handful of her students for a new behavior support program, but wants to include all 21.

She thinks about quitting, but said she refuses to leave another vacancy for the district to fill.

“If you were driving down the road and saw a kid walking from a car injured and bloody, do you ignore it?” she said. “That’s what I’m seeing.”

Ethan Reynolds had a mood disorder and A.D.H.D. that required him to have an aide, but the short-staffed Flint school district could not always provide one.  Credit...Brittany Greeson for The New York Times

The district’s new superintendent, Derrick Lopez, said in a recent interview with a local television station that the district was in desperate need of help, pointing out that the 28 percent of students who have special education plans was double the state average. He also expressed the need to “actually pay our teachers a living wage.”

The Michigan Legislature’s recently passed budget provides a modest increase in education spending, but lawmakers rejected a proposal by the state’s new Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, to give additional funding to schools with high concentrations of special education students, like Flint.

State Representative Sheldon Neeley, Democrat of Flint, said the one-time infusion of extra money would be spread across schools in Genesee County.

“Instead of being delivered to us,” he said, “it’s going to be delivered around us.”

Flint’s schools are now in a downward spiral. The district is funded on a per-pupil basis, but it is hemorrhaging students, about 1,000 since 2014, when the crisis began. Two-thirds of children living in Flint are in charter schools or schools run by the Genesee Intermediate School District.

Angy Keelin wanted to stay in Flint Community Schools, where her blind son, Averey, was progressing in a program for visually impaired students, but then it ended abruptly. She said she was forced to follow the program 10 miles from her home to a Genesee County school.

It has not gone smoothly. Last year, she requested an aide after watching her son walk into buildings and almost fall down a flight of stairs. This year, Averey, now in third grade, has been taught by a long-term substitute who cannot teach him to read Braille, as required by his federal education plan, Ms. Keelin said.

The year after Averey was exposed to lead, he had to repeat kindergarten, and Ms. Keelin fears a Michigan law that calls for students to repeat third grade if they are more than one grade level behind in reading. “I don’t want him to be continuously held back,” she said.

Jeree Brown left the Flint district in 2017, but said she still sees the effect of her son Jabari’s time at Eisenhower Elementary School. She learned Jabari had autism six months after Flint’s lead-tainted water began to flow.

His exposure was confirmed, along with his autism, but the school denied him an individualized education program, or I.E.P., three times, then told her that such a plan would require him to be placed in an “autism room” apart from his peers, Ms. Brown said. The plan called for him to receive speech and occupational therapy services three or four times a week, but he got them once or twice a month.

Jeree Brown with her son Jabari, left, and daughters Jhy’Lah and Ja’Nyah.  Credit...Brittany Greeson for The New York Times

Eisenhower Elementary School in Flint denied Jabari an individualized education program.  Credit...Brittany Greeson for The New York Times

Ms. Brown bathing her 1-year-old daughter, Jhy’Lah, with bottled water in their living room.  Credit...Brittany Greeson for The New York Times

Now 8, Jabari has transferred to a charter school and receives a wealth of autism services. He said his favorite teacher “takes me for breaks to see if you’re happy or sad.”

Some families see no way out. In Michigan, students are granted broad access to school choice, but schools can reject a student for being suspended.

Heather Reynolds’s 12-year-old son, Ethan, had a mood disorder and A.D.H.D. that required him to have an aide, but his short-staffed school did not supply one last spring on a day that Ethan encountered a bully in a bathroom and agreed to trade his dinosaur for the other boy’s pocketknife. The other student then reported Ethan for having the knife, and he was nearly expelled.

Ethan, who had also tested positive for lead, told his mother he made the exchange because he “didn’t want to be punched again,” she said. This summer, after an evaluation by the neurodevelopmental center, he was given a diagnosis of autism.

The expulsion was reversed, but the suspension went on his record.

“Once they get a suspension, the good schools don’t want them,” Ms. Reynolds said. “Then there’s only one school choice, which is the worst school.”

Tucked away in one of the neighborhoods hit hardest by the lead crisis is a 36,000-square-foot early childhood center that many look to for hope.

Educare Flint, funded largely by private money in response to the crisis, opened in December 2017 to serve 220 students ages 0 to 5 with lead exposures among the highest detected. The school is part of a national network that uses research into early childhood education, brain development and the achievement gap between rich and poor to shape its approach. The $15 million facility includes mindfulness rooms and a generous playground.

For parents, the opportunity to send their children to Educare is some consolation for the outrages in their lives — like paying $100 to $200 a month for water they do not believe is safe.

Educare Flint opened in December 2017 to serve 220 students ages 0 to 5 with lead levels among the highest recorded.  Credit...Brittany Greeson for The New York Times

Credit...Brittany Greeson for The New York Times

Children at Educare have access to everything they need, including nurses and laundry services. Credit...Brittany Greeson for The New York Times

Lydia Willis said her 9-month-old son was “getting so much here, including filtered water, that may not be possible at home.”

These children keep the pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha optimistic. Though her research discovered the lead in their blood in 2015, she is looking on the bright side. The crisis has forced a hard conversation about Flint — “toxicity” existed here long before the water crisis, she said.

Since the crisis, partnerships have drawn in millions of dollars to expand early childhood education and health care services, and the fallout has created a road map for other cities — like Newark — that are on the brink of a similar crises.

“We’re leaning on the science of trauma and resilience,” she said, “because kids across this country are waking up to the same nightmare.”

Erica L. Green is a correspondent in Washington covering education and education policy. Before joining The Times, she wrote about education for The Baltimore Sun.