FLINT, Mich. — Tens of thousands of children exposed to lead during the Flint water crisis will be screened to determine whether they need health or special education services under an unprecedented partial settlement of a federal lawsuit against the state and two school districts.
As part of the settlement, the state will pay $4 million to cover the cost of the screenings, according to lawyers for the plaintiffs, which include more than a dozen children and parents.
In a related development, Michigan announced Friday that the health of the city’s drinking water had been restored and that state distribution of free bottled water would be ending within a few days.
That announcement drew immediate outrage from residents who said the water is still not safe to drink, four years after it became contaminated with lead as a result of errors that the state Department of Environmental Quality and other agencies made.
► March 12: Lead exposure may be linked to 250,000 heart-disease deaths a year
► Feb. 12: Tens of millions of Americans exposed to unsafe drinking water each year
► Oct. 18: Judge to Flint: Pick safe, long-term drinking water source now
“They’re putting dollars and cents ahead of Flint residents, which is how we got here in the first place,” said activist Melissa Mays, who is concerned about lead spikes resulting from the ongoing removal of Flint’s lead water lines plus other water contaminants such as bacteria.
The screening for children could affect 25,000 to 30,000 students as well as younger children who may have been exposed.
The settlement is just the first step, said Gregory Little, a lawyer with the Education Law Center in Newark, N.J., who said litigation will continue on other parts of the lawsuit, including a crucial push to require children be provided services once they’re identified.
“It’s a win for our kids,” said Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, director of the Michigan State University-Hurley Pediatric Public Health Initiative who already is leading an effort to identify children and adults exposed to lead and get them connected to resources they may need.
The screenings will be done via the Flint Registry, the effort Hanna-Attisha has created thanks to a $14.4 million federal grant that Michigan State University received from the federal Department of Health and Human Services. That registry launches in September.
The settlement, which applies to all Flint children, including those who attend charter schools, was filed Monday.
It is part of a class-action civil-rights lawsuit that the ACLU of Michigan and the Education Law Center filed in October 2016. The plaintiffs won a victory in September when federal District Judge Arthur Tarnow ruled that the case could move forward, rejecting motions from the defendants to dismiss the case.
In addition to the state, the defendants include Flint Community Schools and the Genesee Intermediate School District.
The water crisis began in April 2014, when a state-appointed emergency manager switched the source of the city’s water supply from Lake Huron water treated in Detroit to water from the Flint River.
After the switch, no process was in place to require corrosion-control chemicals that could have prevented lead from old pipes from seeping into the water supply. Residents immediately began complaining about brown water coming out of their faucets.
The crisis forced many to use filters and bottled water. The city switched back to Lake Huron water 18 months later, in October 2015.
Lead exposure can affect people of all ages. But children have a greater risk of developmental delays, behavior problems, difficulty focusing and academic struggles.
The plaintiffs argue in the lawsuit that the defendants have failed to ensure that lead-exposed children are identified and given the help they need.
The lawsuit centers on three needs:
• Identifying students who have been exposed to lead
• Providing resources to those who’ve been identified as affected and
• Addressing discipline policies so students aren’t being kicked out of school for issues related to their disability.
The settlement addresses only the first area of the lawsuit. Hanna-Attisha and lawyers for the plaintiffs said it is key that the other areas are also dealt with.
“We will harm children if we diagnose them with something and we do not get them into the proper treatment,” Hanna-Attisha said.
Little called the settlement unprecedented.
► March 2017: Judge OKs $87M settlement in Flint water lawsuit
► December 2016: Flint’s ex-emergency managers face felonies in water crisis
“It’s bringing together for the first time a partnership between the families in Flint, the schools and the public health community,” he said
The remaining parts of the lawsuit will continue to be litigated, but the settlement provides hope that can happen, said lawyer Lindsay Heck, an associate at New York-based White & Case that has been part of the lawsuit from the beginning.
“We believe that parents have been waiting for this,” Heck said. “We hope the community can take solace that this will hopefully serve as a template for other communities that may be similarly affected.”
Among the parents happy to see a settlement is Kelly Hinojosa, who has three children enrolled in the Flint school district and another child — a 3-year-old — who has been identified as needing early intervention services but hasn’t been placed at a school yet.
“It’s going to mean a lot,” she said of the screening. “They’re going to get the services and help that they need. Right now, I’m not getting anything.”
Hanna-Attisha’s Flint Registry already has pre-enrolled more than 900 people. About 140,000 people — children and adults — eligible because of their exposure, Hanna-Attisha said.
It’s similar to the registry created to track the health effects of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center. But Hanna-Attisha said the Flint registry goes further.
“It was designed to not just be that long-term monitor. It was designed as a service to get people connected to the resources they need to mitigate this exposure,” she said.
That’s important, Hanna-Attisha said.
“Ethically, professionally, morally, we couldn’t just sit back and say, ‘Oh, this is how people are doing. This is the effect of the water crisis,’ ” she said.
► December 2016: Michigan asks judge not to order Flint bottled water deliveries
► December 2013: 4 million in USA could be drinking toxic water, would never know
The screenings will happen on two levels. First, people such as parents, caregivers and teachers will fill out surveys, answering questions that are designed to get at the effects of lead exposure. The screenings themselves aren’t diagnostic.
“They just raise a red flag … via questions,” Hanna-Attisha said
If the survey results point to a problem, such as a developmental delay, behavior problem or a school problem — or if a caregiver simply wants a child to be further assessed in person — then the child will be referred to a neural developmental center. There, the child will receive a four- to eight-hour assessment.
After that session, a diagnosis will be made. It could be that the child is fine and needs no resources.
Or the neural development assessment may identify special education resources that are needed or services needed in a health-care setting, Hanna-Attisha said.
An important part of the settlement is that it doesn’t require the creation of a new program and instead “builds on what we already have,” she said.
A substantial effort will be needed to ensure people know about the registry and sign up, she said. Parents must give the OK for their child to be screened.
Hinojosa says her children were exposed to the lead from April 2014 until they moved to Houston in October of that year. In Houston, her fourth-grade daughter Ariel Lawson was identified for special education services because of a learning disability.
► December 2016: Congress passes at least $120M in financing for Flint water
► October 2016: Costs of Michigan attorney general’s Flint probe hit $2.3M
But when they moved back to Flint in September, displaced as a result of Hurricane Harvey, she said Flint school officials told her that her daughter was not eligible for special education.
In Houston, “she was making really good progress,” Hinojosa said. Now, “she’s struggling in school. She’s not getting the help she needs.”
► September 2016: After court threat, Michigan removed Flint’s power to sue
► March 2016: Excessive lead levels found in 2,000 water systems across 50 states
The lawsuit would have been valid even if the water crisis hadn’t happened, pointing to the school district’s poor academic achievement, low graduation rate and high rates of suspension and expulsion, Heck said.
“Flint was already in a state of emergency,” Heck said.