By Harold C. Ford
Events in August kickstarted the 2020-21 school year for Flint Community Schools in a most newsworthy fashion. The settlement of two longstanding lawsuits brought by the American Civil Liberties Union had important ramifications for Flint’s schoolchildren. All fall sports have been canceled. Fewer than 50% of Flint’s students showed up for class at the start of the new school year. And three incumbent board of education members have decided to exit the board.
ACLU lawsuit settlement provides millions for Flint’s special needs children:
The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan (ACLU-M) announced a “groundbreaking settlement” on Aug. 20 in its federal class action lawsuit seeking “urgently needed special education services” for students in Flint and Genesee County. At least $9 million will be committed to special needs students.
In October, 2016 the ACLU-M and the Education Law Center, a national education rights law firm based in New Jersey, filed a class-action civil rights lawsuit alleging violations of federal education laws by the State of Michigan and local school authorities. Defendants in the suit included the Michigan Department of Education (MDE), Flint Community Schools (FCS), and the Genesee Intermediate School District (GISD).
The lawsuit charged that FCS, GISD, and the State of Michigan failed “to provide a safe learning environment, allocate sufficient resources, ensure the availability of necessary personnel, or adequately prepare for a likely increase in special education cases as a result of widespread exposure to lead.”
The lawsuit alleged violations of three federal laws: the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) of 2004, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
Terms of the settlement, subject to court approval, include:
$9 million to fund a Flint Water Crisis Special Education Fund to support students with disabilities;
$2 million in supplemental assistance from the GISD to FCS and other districts for transportation, staff, and services for special needs students;
Delivery of pre-school programming for all three-and four-year-olds in Flint;
Modification and upgrading of special needs programming for all special needs students in Genesee County;
A “child find” process that provides neuropsychological assessments when necessary to all Flint children impacted by the Flint Water Crisis.
“This settlement establishes a model to identify children with disabilities, to create structural changes that will ensure that those disabilities are properly addressed, and to prevent school discipline from being used as a substitute for behavioral interventions,” said Lindsay M. Heck, lead attorney from the global law firm White & Case LLP, which worked on the case pro bono.
“It is a model that will not only transform the educational system for Flint children, but that establishes a framework for underfunded school districts in urban communities with deteriorating infrastructures that serve predominantly Black and Brown children,” said Heck.
Handcuff lawsuit settled:
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and ACLU-M settled a lawsuit that resulted from the handcuffing of a seven-year-old student during an after-school program at Flint’s Brownell K-2 STEM Academy in Oct. 2015. The after-school program was administered by the Flint & Genesee Chamber of Commerce.
Cameron McCadden had been handcuffed for about an hour by a Flint police officer who was employed as a school resource officer. The ACLU lawsuit was brought against the Flint Police Department and the Flint & Genesee Chamber of Commerce in July 2018.
According to an Aug. 18, 2020 statement at the ACLU of Michigan website, “The settlement agreement includes the creation of a fund to help address Cameron’s needs and new policies adopted by the after-school program and the Flint Police Department.”
The new policies agreed to by the Flint & Genesee County Chamber of Commerce included:
No physical restraint except as a last resort;
No involvement of a school resource officer unless there is imminent danger;
Documentation of physical restraint and notice to parents;
Disabilities training for staff.
The Flint Police Department will encourage officers to do the following:
Limit police involvement in school discipline issues to criminal offenses only;
Use alternatives to arresting juveniles;
Use lowest level of enforcement for elementary school children;
Involve parents whenever possible;
Release children when there has been no property damage or physical injury;
De-escalate whenever possible;
Participate in training related to implicit bias, de-escalation, special needs children, and positive behavior intervention.
All fall sports canceled:
All fall sports in Flint schools have been canceled. The announcement was issued by the school district’s public relations firm, Lambert & Co., and posted at the district’s website by Jamie Foster, director of athletics, on Aug. 25. The cancellation includes football, soccer, tennis, cross country, volleyball, and Crim community sports.
“This was not a decision made lightly,” according to the statement from Foster. “We believe it is our responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of the students in our care and take all necessary precautions to help limit the spread of the pandemic.”
The Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) had announced earlier on Aug. 14 that the fall football season would be postponed and played, perhaps, in the spring. The MHSAA judged football to be a “higher risk” sport along with boys lacrosse, competitive cheer, and wrestling.
“Low risk” sports such as cross country, golf, swimming and diving, and tennis and “moderate risk” sports such as gymnastics, soccer, and volleyball had yet to be canceled or postponed by the MHSAA. However, the latest update at the organization’s website dated Aug. 20 presents a confusing array of regional guidelines that, at best, portends uncertainty.
Student no-shows send educators into neighborhoods:
Less than 50 percent of expected student enrollment in the first week and a half of school sent teams of FCS educators into Flint neighborhoods to find the no-shows. Those teams—including Superintendent Anita Steward and Assistant Superintendent Kevelin Jones—boarded buses to pound the pavement in search of potential enrollees.
“We are feet to the pavement, out in the streets, going door-to-door…to connect with our families,” Jones told East Village Magazine (EVM).
“We were down 2,000 children and that had never happened to us before,” said Jones. He reported that FCS officials expected an enrollment of 3,800 students in the 2020-21 school year. When only 1,500 students had shown through the first eight days of school, FCS leadership undertook the beyond-the-call of-duty effort.
According to Jones, the recruitment effort was producing results. After one week, he reported the number of missing students had been reduced from 2,000 to 800.
Three board incumbents to step down:
All three incumbent board members whose terms expire at the end of this calendar year have opted not to seek reelection on Nov. 3. Casey Lester, board president (with nearly two years on the board), Betty Ramsdell, secretary (11 years), and Blake Strozier, trustee (10 years), take more than two decades of Flint board experience with them as they step down.
Twelve candidates are vying to fill the three seats about to be vacated. EVM expects to profile the candidates prior to the November election.
Lester and Strozier cited career and family demands as reasons for their exits. After decades of service to Flint schools in various capacities, Ramsdell said it was “time for a change.”
EVM Education Beat reporter Harold C. Ford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.