Flint Schools Plan for the Future of Students Suffering from Lead Poisoning Symptoms

Written by: Kacy Martin

Primary Source: Green & Write, March 2, 2016

Day-to-Day Life with Lead 

City and school leaders in Flint are dealing with the implications of the discovery of high levels of lead in its water supply. The ongoing crisis is a clear example of the obstacles facing many urban districts in poor areas. While the schools certainly did not cause the water problem, they will be held responsible for mitigating its long-term impact. The cohort of very young children exposed to lead during the two-year period of contamination are not yet in school, and will enter Flint Public Schools at roughly the same time. Because of their exposure to lead, these children will have a greater probability of academic and behavioral problems, which creates significant obstacles for the already strapped district in the coming years.

Photo Courtesy of Erik Fitzpatrick

Photo Courtesy of Erik Fitzpatrick

Having lost over 75% of its students over the past two decades, Flint schools have faced enormous challenges to adequately serving students. Superintendent Bilal Tawwab explained the impact of the contaminated water to members of the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee: “For our students, life has changed. There is the constant stress over unsafe water that disrupts the life of a community that already face a multitude of challenges.”

School officials have been improvising in order to minimize the damage to students. Preparing school lunches, for example, is a challenge because cafeteria workers cannot use the water. Food must be chosen based on whether it needs to be rinsed, so fruits that can be peeled are chosen over those that require washing. Likewise, drinking fountains have been removed from all schools and students have been advised to bring bottled water. According to Tawwab, donations from around the country have supported students’ ability to bring filtered water from home. It is likely, however, that the generosity of strangers will not outlast the longevity of the problem.

Anticipating Future Needs

While school officials are making efforts to avoid exposing students to the city’s water, the long-term effects to which students have already been exposed is not yet known. The district now faces a probable influx of students who may have suffered irreversible harm in the years to come. Not only will these students likely have different educational needs than their peers, the cost to serve them will undoubtedly be higher. In Michigan, the per-pupil expenditure is almost 50% higher for special education students than for their mainstream classmates.

Ingesting lead can affect children’s behavior and intelligence over time.

In her testimony before the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha explained the impact on a child’s development: “Lead has been linked to decreased IQ and an increased likelihood of ADHD, delinquent behaviors, total arrests, and increased rates of arrests involving violent offenses.”

Needless to say, the fallout from lead exposure will continue to affect schools for years to come.

Superintendent Tawwab hopes to create educational interventions to help support students who have been exposed to lead. Initially, he hopes to expand early childhood options students from birth to age 5. Beyond Pre-K programs, the district plans to hire and train behavior intervention staff in order to “support the individual needs of these children.”

The Reality

The chances of bringing on new staff amidst the current budget deficit, however, seem low. Flint Public Schools currently has a $10.5 million deficit. As an illustration of the strain this puts on staff, Dr. Hanna-Attisha recommends that the minimum student to school nurse ratio should be one nurse to 750 students. Flint’s student to nurse ratio is currently one general nurse for every 6,500 students.

In the midst of such a long-term public health disaster, it is difficult to imagine schools serving students in a way resembling that of their suburban peers who are untroubled with such issues. Superintendent Tawwab observed in his testimony, “There is an inherent struggle between trying to balance the educational needs of the students while meeting their physical and emotional needs in light of this crisis.”

Like many issues plaguing urban schools, this disaster’s origin has nothing to do with schools, but it will have a tremendous impact on teaching and learning. What began as shortsighted negligence from city officials, will be dealt with in classrooms across the city for years to come.

Contact Kacy: kmartin@msu.edu

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Kacy Martin
Kacy Martin entered the Educational Policy program in the fall of 2013. After completing a Bachelor and Master's degrees at the University of Michigan, she taught in the Chicago Public Schools, serving on the Instructional Leadership Team and creating professional learning cycles to improve teacher practices in reading instruction. Her research focuses on the impact of parent social networks on school choice in urban districts, the relationship between urban planning and school enrollment, and the politics of education finance at the local and state levels.