As the new school year starts, Flint's public schools face a daunting challenge. According to a new report published by Education Week on Monday, this year at least 1 in 5 students in Flint's public schools are eligible for special education.
That's a 56 percent increase from the year before the Flint water crisis started, which poisoned thousands of people with lead. The increase saw a rise from 13.1 percent in 2012-13 to 20.5 percent last school year, and the rise is putting a strain on Flint's school system resources.
A lawsuit has been filed on behalf of Flint families against the Flint school system and the Michigan education department, "alleging systematic failure to meet the needs of special education students," according to the report. Though the lawsuit does not place the need for more special education services on the water crisis, lead exposure has been linked to developmental problems in children.
Couple that with the fact that Flint homes, like those in many older cities, have lead paint, and you have what pioneering epidemiologist and pediatrician Philip Landrigan called a "a double whammy" in lead exposure, according to the report.
As the report also notes, Flint could foreshadow problems in other school districts. That sentiment was echoed in an op-ed by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha published in The New York Times on Wednesday.
Hanna-Attisha would know. Working as a pediatrician, it was Hanna-Attisha who discovered elevated levels of lead in Flint's children, which state officials initially denied until they couldn't anymore.
Hanna-Attisha notes that a number of U.S. cities, including Newark, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Portland, Oregon, are experiencing elevated levels of lead in their drinking water — "one of the legacies of the profit-driven and largely unaccountable lead industry that thwarted science, fought regulations and forced its use in our gasoline, paint and plumbing," she writes.
But Newark's numbers are the most troubling: "The amount of lead in Newark’s water is among the highest of any municipal system of its size across the country," she says, adding:
What can Newark citizens expect? If they’ve paid attention to drinking-water crises of the past 20 years in our country, they’ll see politicians who are in denial, utilities that don’t want to be held accountable, health officials who demand “proof of harm” before taking action and victims who are dismissed and even blamed.
Hanna-Attisha says while researching the Flint water crisis, she was shocked to learn that 20 years ago, there was a lead water crisis in Washington, D.C. — "right under the noses of our most powerful institutions," she says. "Unless that piece of history becomes more well known, and studied, it will continue to repeat itself."
Last year, at least 57 of the 86 schools in Detroit Public School Community District tested with elevated levels of lead.
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