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June 14, 2021 HUMAN RIGHTS

When Environmental Racism, a Public Health Crisis, and an Educational Emergency Collide

by Lindsay Heck

Flint, Michigan, is ground zero for the four major crises that have afflicted the nation over the past year. In Flint, a catastrophic public health crisis collided with an economic downturn, systemic racism, and a burgeoning environmental crisis years before the COVID-19 pandemic unleashed, or exacerbated, such forces on a nationwide scale. In April 2014, an unelected emergency manager changed Flint’s water source in an ill-conceived attempt to save money after decades of economic decline had plunged the city into financial distress. Although Flint sits in the middle of the Great Lakes region, which holds 20 percent of the earth’s fresh surface water, the city was taken off the Detroit water system, which derives from Lake Huron, and put on the Flint River, which had been polluted for decades. Immediately after the switch, the highly acidic water started corroding the pipes, which were predominantly lead-based, and lead from the city’s aging pipes began leaching into its water supply.

Lead poisoning is known as a silent epidemic, but the people in Flint were not silent; they raised their voices. After the water switch, there was public outcry about the brown, smelly water. Six months after the switch, while the citizens of Flint were assured that the water was safe to drink, General Motors took its plant off the Flint water supply because the water was corroding engine parts. It was more than a year before anything was done for the 100,000 people living in the city, approximately 30,000 of whom were children.

Because there is no medical intervention that can completely counter the effects of lead exposure, education is the answer.

Because there is no medical intervention that can completely counter the effects of lead exposure, education is the answer.


In October 2015, 18 months after the water switch, the government finally acknowledged that there was lead in the water after more than a year of repeated denials.

It was imperative in the wake of the lead crisis to ensure that the people of Flint would have access to a safe water supply on a going-forward basis. This was addressed in litigation brought by a coalition of Flint pastors and summarized here. However, another critical aspect of the response was creating a roadmap to help the children who had already been exposed to lead in the water for a period of at least 18 months.

Lead is a potent neurotoxin that, when ingested, affects every organ in the body, but most significantly the brain. It leads to irreversible brain damage and has profound effects on learning, memory, and behavior. Because there is no medical intervention that can completely counter the effects of lead exposure, education is the answer.

With well-resourced and high-functioning schools, both the cognitive and behavioral effects of lead exposure can be mitigated. But in Flint, decades of educational disinvestment had resulted in underfunded and underperforming public schools that were failing their students even before the lead crisis dramatically increased students’ needs. In the immediate aftermath of the lead crisis, the number of students qualifying for special education in Flint public schools rose by one-third, jumping from 15 percent in the 2014–15 school year to nearly 20 percent in the 2017–18 academic year. During the same period, due to a freeze imposed by the State of Michigan on wages for educators in Flint, the special education teaching force was decimated. The upshot was that by October 2018, 25 percent of positions allocated for special education teachers in Flint public schools remained vacant. This means that in a district where one out of every five students qualified for special education, one out of every four special education teaching positions remained unfilled. 

The mass poisoning in Flint was an unprecedented emergency that required an unprecedented, interdisciplinary response at the intersection of medicine,

The mass poisoning in Flint was an unprecedented emergency that required an unprecedented, interdisciplinary response at the intersection of medicine,


The Public Health Crisis in Flint Was an Educational Crisis

The lesson of Flint is that environmental injustice precipitates, or exacerbates, both public health and educational crises. The mass poisoning in Flint was an unprecedented emergency that required an unprecedented, interdisciplinary response at the intersection of medicine, education law, and environmental law.

In October 2016, the global law firm White & Case, where I am an associate, worked pro bono to commence a class action lawsuit with the Education Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan on behalf of the approximately 30,000 children in Flint exposed to lead. The purpose of the lawsuit was to ensure that schools in Flint would be at the front lines of the response to the lead crisis and, most importantly, that they would be equipped with the resources to carry out that response.

The landmark settlement we recently reached in the Flint special education class action provides a model to approach the Flint water crisis through an educational lens. The model created in Flint has three central pillars: It provides a comprehensive program to identify children with special education needs, resources to ensure that those needs are met in the school setting, and measures to prevent school discipline from being used as a substitute for positive behavioral interventions.

With respect to the first pillar, state-of-the-art testing is now available in Flint, which provides a blueprint for the design, under the second pillar, of special education programs tailored to meet each child’s needs. The settlement ensures that resources will be provided so that special education staff can be hired as the cornerstone for the delivery of such programs. Under the third pillar, all school staff will be trained to address students’ behavioral issues with positive supports rather than punitive measures.

The model we created in Flint is intended to break the cycle in which Flint schools were failing to diagnose children’s needs, failing to fulfill those needs, and then blaming and punishing students for behavioral outbursts stemming from their unmet needs. An example of one of our plaintiffs puts this cycle into sharp relief. When he was only six years old, he was suspended from school more than 30 times and charged with more than 50 infractions because he was not receiving the interventions he needed. Unsurprisingly, his academic progress lagged, and he was effectively pushed out of the public school system into an online virtual school years before that became the new normal.

The trauma inflicted on students by the Flint water crisis cannot be overstated. One Flint teacher spoke to us about her class of second and third graders. When the classroom pet, a bearded dragon, died from the lead in the water, children asked, “Will we die too? We also drank the water.”

Flint is a microcosm of poor policy decisions that have systematically impacted underserved people of color. But this is not just a Flint problem. It is a national problem. And it is a racial problem. Seven- and eight-year-olds should not have to ask if they will die like their classroom pet.

We know that there are more Flints out there: poor urban communities with deteriorating infrastructures and failing schools that serve predominantly Black and brown children. Some of these communities—Providence, Baltimore, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Newark—have struggled with lead in the water. The model we have created in Flint is not only a model that will transform the educational system for Flint children. It is also a model that can be followed in communities outside of Flint with aging infrastructures that may be similarly affected. Flint is a symbol of resilience and hope. Hopefully, the rest of the nation will learn from its lessons.

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Lindsay Heck

Associate, Commercial Litigation Practice Group, White & Case LLP

Lindsay Heck is an associate in the Commercial Litigation Practice Group at White & Case LLP. She was the lead on a groundbreaking class action lawsuit brought on behalf of the approximately 30,000 children in Flint, Michigan, poisoned by lead in the water during the infamous water crisis.