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.