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Flint — Kelly Hinojosa is frustrated with the school system in Flint because her fifth-grade daughter can hardly spell, struggles with reading and math, and has been denied special education services.

Hinojosa's daughter, Ariel Lawson, was diagnosed with ADHD and anxiety, but Flint Community Schools has refused her mother's request for help.

"They want to be in denial, and they don’t have the staffing there to help her," Hinojosa said.

Ariel received special education services at Houston public schools from 2015-17. It included one-on-one time with a special education teacher for 30 minutes twice a week to improve her reading and math skills.

When Ariel's family moved back to Flint in 2017, the district told Ariel's family she did not meet the criteria for services, Lawson said.

"They don’t want to help kids, and they just want to pass them along," Hinojosa said.

But Ariel's family may have new hope in a universal health screening and evaluation program underway that was prompted by Flint's water crisis and comes amid a dramatic rise in the number of special education students attending Flint's schools.

The program — part of a $4 million court settlement with the state — might entitle Ariel and hundreds of other schoolchildren to special education services in the school district, which also is struggling with a shortage of special ed teachers.

The Neurodevelopmental Center of Excellence in Flint began receiving referrals last fall for in-depth evaluations of Flint children by its staff, which includes a full-time pediatric neuropsychologist and other specialists, said Greg Little, chief trial counsel at the Education Law Center, which provides legal and policy resources to help families and school officials understand education law.

The center is  processing 1,000 referrals and expects more in the coming months, Little said.

The screening and evaluation program are part of a 2018 settlement agreement reached by attorneys representing Flint children in a civil lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Education over special education conditions in Flint Community Schools.

The settlement also funded the Flint Registry, an online project that will connect children and adults in Flint to wellness services and programs. More than 6,100 people have pre-enrolled. Lawson said she plans to enroll Ariel, whose diagnosis came before the lead-tainted water crisis in 2014.

Little said neuropsychological testing is a key component of properly evaluating children who have been exposed to lead because it is uniquely able to pinpoint impairments of cognitive functioning that may be caused by exposure. Schools can then target educational interventions and support the student's needs, he said.

"It is anticipated that additional students will be identified as in need of special education, and current students with disabilities will have their special education plans revised through the registry’s screening and evaluation program," Little said.

But attorneys in the case are concerned that Flint Community Schools is not prepared to handle the potential increased volume of special needs kids from the lead fallout, with its special education population already swelling to nearly 20 percent since the water crisis and a shortage in its special education teaching force.

Attorney Lindsay Heck, whose firm White and Case represents Flint children in the case, said with the screenings underway, it's time for the state education department to step in and provide resources to Flint students.

"While the screening is a very important first step and victory, It is ultimately meaningless if you don’t have the staff and services that (special education) children need,” Heck said. "That gap between the resources and the students who are identified as special education is going to widen, making it worse and worse."

On Jan. 11, a federal judge approved a 60-day stay in the lawsuit against the state education department and others to allow attorneys for the children to ask new state leaders, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel, to look closely at the special education problems in Flint.

"We were very disappointed in past administrations willing to fairly address the situation in Flint," Little said of former Gov. Rick Snyder and former Attorney General Bill Schuette. "They horribly underestimated the severity of the problem and over exaggerated the level of support the state was providing Flint schools.

"It's far, far better for the state and county to step up and provide additional resources now. Time is of the essence, especially when you are dealing with these kinds of services."

Growing need in Flint

In the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Detroit, attorneys from the ACLU Fund of Michigan, the Education Law Center and White and Case allege the state education department, the Genesee Intermediate School District and Flint schools failed to provide adequate financial and staffing resources and support to help Flint schoolchildren meet the challenges they were facing in getting special education services.

Claims in the case are set for trial later this year. 

State education officials have declined to discuss the lawsuit. 

John Miller, an attorney representing the Genesee Intermediate School District, said Flint has not asked for additional special education services since the water crisis and has opted to provide its own special education services and receive state funding for those services rather than have the intermediate district provide them. 

The number of special education students in Flint schools has increased from 14.88 percent in the 2014-15 school year — as the water crisis began — to 19.77 percent in the 2017-18 school year, when there were 902 special education students in the district.

Michigan's statewide special education rate is 13.6 percent. 

Flint's special education population has been growing at a time its special education workforce has been shrinking. 

Under pressure from the state to balance its budget, the district made staffing and program cuts in special education. The district slashed its special education workforce 40 percent in response to budgetary deficits from 2010 through 2014, from 121 staff members to 73, according to the lawsuit. It eliminated nearly all of its special education subject area teachers, cutting 111 of 113 positions.

More recent data show the number of full-time certified special education teachers in the district has shrunk from 57 in 2014 to 25 in 2017. The number of special education subject teachers has gone from eight in 2014 to one in 2017, state data show.

Flint Community Schools received $7.193 million from the state for special education services in the 2017-18 school year, the most of 35 districts in Genesee County, Miller said.

The law allows local school districts to contract with the intermediate district or other districts if they do not want to or cannot provide the services themselves, Miller said.

"FCS has opted to provide more (special education) services than other districts, and consequentially receives more (special education) funding," Miller said.

The district's top leader, Flint superintendent Derrick Lopez, limited his answers to questions on the state of special education in his district while the lawsuit is pending.

Lopez declined to say whether he has asked Genesee Intermediate School District for additional special education services.

"We can say that providing the highest quality educational services to every student at Flint Community Schools is our first priority," he said.

"We don't comment on current litigation. We are very clear about the water crisis, and we are very clear about the need for support for our kids."

As for current special education conditions, Lopez said the district has a capable special education director "who is working tirelessly to make sure the needs of our youngsters are being met in the district.

"We have a lot of things to do with respect to systems in the district, that is one of the systems that has been under good stewardship for a number of years. We are serving our kids as best we can," Lopez said.

A shortage of teachers

The case involving Flint schoolchildren began in 2016 when the ACLU of Michigan sued Flint Community Schools, the state education department and the Genesee Intermediate School District in a federal civil rights lawsuit that challenged systemic deficiencies in Flint's special education program.

The case focused on allegations that the state failed to find and serve children with special needs and to address the impact of the water crisis, which potentially put thousands of children at risk of developing a disability or worsening an existing disability.

Flint's water was contaminated with lead when officials used corrosive river water from April 2014 to October 2015 that wasn't properly treated. In children, lead exposure can result in serious effects on IQ, ability to pay attention and academic achievement.

Attorneys in the case say Flint needs a systemic solution to fix its problems in special education. Monique Muschatt and other parents have said just hiring more teachers into the classrooms would be a good start.

"They do not have enough special ed teachers," Muschatt said. "There are 30-40 students in one class. That is not good for disabilities students."

Muschatt has three children, including a son who has ADHD. He has a special education plan at his school. She also has a daughter who was denied special education services last year.

"I do blame the water," she said. "And for my son who has ADHD, he never had problems in school until we had problems with the water. He is super moody."

Karen Christian, president United Teachers of Flint, the district's teachers union, said the special education teacher shortage stems from an inability to pay teachers a decent wage.

"Even when you have someone hired, they find out what the pay scale is and they bail," she said.

Teachers in Flint have not had a pay raise in 10 years and are in the middle of contract negotiations. The district uses a third-party provider to bring in special education substitutes who either have teaching degrees from other states or a degree in the area they teach.

"The money we get is not enough, especially with the services children need and additional supplies and programs children need," Christian said.

State lags in funding

Special education conditions continue to erode in Michigan because of a lack of transparency at the state education department and insufficient funding for special education services, said Marcie Lipsitt, a Michigan-based special education advocate and civil rights activist.

In 2017, the state's Special Education Reform Task Force said a $700 million gap exists between the cost of current special education services and existing special education funding streams.

Michigan became the only state in the country in 2018 to receive a “needs intervention” rating from the U.S. Department of Education — which The Detroit News first reported — for failing to meet special education requirements under federal law. 

"If you are looking at special ed, you have the same problems in Flint as you do throughout Michigan. But in Flint it's magnified because of the needs of the children," said Lipsitt, who has filed more than 2,400 federal civil rights complaints on special education compliance.

To begin addressing special education needs in Flint, Lipsitt said the public school district must commit to performing a comprehensive evaluation of every child entering kindergarten and not just rely on a voluntary registry.

That evaluation should include a full physical and educational evaluation that include a cognitive battery of tests for executive function and achievement, speech and language tests, she said.

"You are going to have generations of children with disabilities in Flint," Lipsitt said. "Without early intervention or early evaluations to understand how these children think and learn it will be a vicious cycle of children who fail."

jchambers@detroitnews.com

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