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FLINT, MI: Parents sue district over services for brain-damaged children

Feb 5, 2020, WBUR, Boston, MA: After Flint Water Crisis, Number Of Students With Special Education Needs Spikes More than a dozen families in Flint, Michigan, are suing the public school system, arguing their children were exposed to brain-damaging levels of lead during the water crisis six years ago. The parents say that exposure may have caused or exacerbated their children’s disability-related needs. These families will make their case in federal court this summer. “What we're enforcing in this lawsuit in federal court is a federal entitlement statute that children are identified and that their disability-related needs are provided with accommodations and services so that they can access a quality education,” says Kristen Totten, an education attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in Michigan. This case is just one of several lawsuits against the Flint school system. The city’s rate of special education students has grown steadily since the water crisis began –– 28% of students are in special education programs, while the national average is about 13%. Medical professionals have said there's no way to prove conclusively that lead has caused new disabilities in Flint. But it has been proven that children exposed to lead are at higher risk of neurological damage and developmental delays. Jessica Gutierrez, a Flint native and mother of five, says she noticed significant behavioral changes in her children since the water crisis. “I've had a child that was potty trained and now all of a sudden she has a problem with incontinence,” Gutierrez says. “The worst types of behavioral issues are the ones where you can see that your child realizes that what they're doing is not normal.” Her children were tested, and all five were diagnosed with different psychological and development issues. But only one of her children is currently in a special education program…. On dealing with her children’s change in behavior Gutierrez: “The worst thing about that is if you didn't have a background about why your children were behaving the way that they are, you would think that they're just inherently being disobedient. So if I jump a little bit forward, the state of Michigan put into play basically a system or a place, a medical place, where you can get your children tested for neurological testing. When you go and you get your child tested and you find out that there is something most definitely wrong with your child, it's like a retraumatization all over again because, oh, my goodness, all of these times I harshly punished my kid, so you have that to go back over.” On her children being diagnosed with varying neurological and behavioral issues Gutierrez: “The thing is, you leave [the doctor] and you're like, 'So what do I do now?' And that's not the only question that parents have. Some of the teachers that I've spoken with are also having that concern. I was pregnant during 2014. I had my baby in 2015. And there are programs early on for the little ones. And so what now they're starting to see is now this is the influx, the introduction of the children that were just at the precipice of the water crisis. They were in utero. Their parents were drinking the water. They were feeding it to their kids in the bottles. And what they're seeing with the students is they don't know how to handle it.”…


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