There isn’t much good to be said for the Flint Water Crisis or the way the state has handled its emergency response and cleanup. But if there is one silver lining to this cloud, it’s that the national attention has shown a light on the troubles with the Flint special education process.
Flint, like many other school districts in lower income areas of the state, has a big problem meeting its students needs for special education. Lack of resources, teachers, and funding often result in “push out”, where special needs students are suspended or expelled, rather than given the services required by federal law.
Take the story of Dakota Kirksley, a kindergartner in Flint Community Schools diagnosed with autism. After only 4 months in school, at the young age of 5, his mother was told he would not be allowed to return to school. The voicemail from the school officials said:
“He is disrupting the other children from learning, banging chairs against the table. . . . You need to come pick him up so other children can learn.”
Kirksley’s mother is visually disabled, and not able to provide an adequate education for Dakota at home.
The Struggle to Honor Special Education IEPs
Under federal law, when a child has a diagnosed learning disability – from ADHD to autism – he or she is entitled to an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), laying out that student’s particular needs and support services. As part of any IEP, a child with special needs is entitled to additional protections when school discipline gets involved. Those protections can include additional staff attention, services, and out-of-class interventions.
But in money-strapped districts like Flint, those resources are hard to come by. Because of this, many students with significant learning disabilities go without IEPs or special education services. Even if a parent is able to get the process started, the student’s IEP might be ignored in favor of classroom peace and efficiency.
The Fight for Information
That’s where the Michigan Protection and Advocacy Service agency, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of the mentally, physically, and developmentally disabled students, comes in. They have taken on Dakota’s case, filing a federal lawsuit to get information about special education services from the district. As thee Flint Water Crisis sends an entire generation of lead-exposed children into the schools, the district’s ability to identify, respond to, and serve its special needs children will be stretched to the limit. MPAS lead attorney Brad Dembstold told the Detroit News:
“With the potential increase in behavior issues and developmental delays in Flint schoolchildren as a result of the exposure to toxins in their water, it is important that we be able to provide our services with as little encumbrance or delay as possible. . . . More students in Flint are going to need our assistance … and resolving the records access issue now will allow us to serve more clients than we would otherwise be able to if required to wait months or more for records and spend our limited resources repeatedly following up with the district to get students’ complete files.”
The Need for Change
The Flint School District already has the second highest number of MPAS complaints of any district in the state. (Second only to Detroit Public Schools.) When the need for special education services jumps as a result of the lead in Flint’s water supply, it’s going to take more than paperwork to fill the gap. The Michigan Department of Education and the Flint Public Schools are going to need to respond with money, social workers, and resources to make sure all their students’ special needs are met.
The Flint Water Crisis affected far more than pipes. The damage done by the lead in the Flint water supply is going to stretch into the schools and burden a special education system that is already spread thin.
Lisa J. Schmidt is a school lawyer at Schmidt Law Services, PLLC, in Ferndale, Michigan. She represents students at suspension and expulsions hearings throughout Metro Detroit. If your student isn’t getting the special education services he or she needs, contact Schmidt Law Services today to schedule a free consultation.